Concept of Martyrdom

Martyrdom or voluntarily laying down of one’s life for one’s faith or principles, considered a noble death in any society, is especially prized in Sikhism which has a long and continuous tradition of such adherence to religious belief and sacrifice for it.  Etymologically, “martyr” is derived from the Greek martys meaning “witness.” Significantly, the Punjabi word for martyrdom, shahadat, borrowed from Arabic, also means testimony or affirmation.  Thus, a shahid or martyr is one who by his supreme sacrifice for his faith bears witness to its truth, and to his own unswerving allegiance to it. In a world in which bigots and tyrants have often tried to impose their will on others aiming to deflect them from the path held by them to be the right one, the situation for the enactment of the high tragedy of martyrdom has been constantly recurring.  Martyrs have ever since the dawn of history been providing inspiration, sustenance, strength and a self-regenerative force to their respective faiths and sense of honour and pride to their followers.

            A martyr is generally defined as one who chooses to suffer death rather than renounce his or her faith. Physical death according to Christian thought is not essential to martyrdom.  According to Saint Jerome (AD c. 340-420), “it is not only the shedding of blood that is accounted as a confession. The spotless service of a devout mind is itself a daily martyrdom.” Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225?-74), scholastic philosopher and theologian, too, considers that on the physical plane “martyrdom consists in the right endurance of suffering unjustly inflicted.”  In Islam all believers who die fighting against the infidels are believed to have attained martyrdom. In the Sikh conception of the term, however, a deliberate choice to suffer death for the sake of religious belief is crucial to martyrdom.  Heroism and martyrdom both involve exemplary courage, but the courage in a martyr is more deep-rooted, more moral than physical, and is born out of spiritual conviction rather than love of worldly gain or glory.

            In the ancient world the records of tyranny and the idealistic resistance to it have generally been incomplete or mixed up with much mythological matter.  The result of this has been that the clear picture of the episodes of martyrdom, the relevant factors in the situation, the ideals cherished and the full emotional significance of the sacrifice have been brought out only in historical times when fairly reliable and detailed accounts of the act have been recorded by sympathetic and imaginative witnesses.  Given such witnesses, what would ordinarily be viewed as mere incidents of death and brutality take on the character of the upholding of cherished ideals to death in the eye of a power held to be divine whose higher purposes are fulfilled through the tragic conflict represented in the act of self-immolation involved in martyrdom.

            In the Muslim tradition the parallel term for martyr is shahid which, again, signifies witness.  Both in classical Greek and Arabic the formulation of these parallel terms, each of which is built round the same image, would indicate the history of the moral and spiritual struggle of races and tribes sharing common cultural traditions in the lands inhabited by the races known as the Semitic.  While the Greek writers’ mind would be deeply influenced by the sufferings of the Jewish people at the hands of Egyptians, Babylonians and such others, and, later, the story of Jesus’ sacrifice, the Muslims had, besides, their own celebrated martyrs among the Prophet’s followers and descendants, led by his grandson, Imam Husain.  It is from the Muslim tradition that the term shahid came into India and, like so much else from the Muslim cultural background, got acclimatized in the social milieu of the Sikh people in a manner as to acquire a new and extended significance among them because of the peculiar turns the history of the Sikh people took since quite an early period in the growth of their Church.  All the classical elements of the phenomenon of martyrdom have been present in the religious history of the Sikh people in a remarkable degree.  It is doubtful if before the Sikhs’ use of this term in India, any other non-Muslim people had adopted it.  After the currency which this term got at the hands of the Sikhs, it became common coin in referring to the sacrifices of all those who fell while serving their faith, or in the patriotic struggle against British rule in their country.

            Sikhism began in early sixteenth century as a religious brotherhood open to all, irrespective of caste, colour or race.  The Sikhs did not come of a single ethnic stock, yet a spirit of sacrifice and readiness to stand up to tyranny and injustice emerged as their common racial trait.  During the eighteenth century when the ruling powers and foreign invaders launched a ruthless campaign against them, they matched the situation with courage and fortitude and with unparalleled deeds of heroism and sacrifice.  To die for their faith and for their Guru had become their ruling impulse.  As says the Prachin Panth Prakash, “Sikhs had a fondness for death.  To court death they had now found the opportunity.  Their lives they held not dear.  They did not feel the pain if their bodies were slashed. . .  To martyrdom are we wedded.  We turn not our backs upon it, sang the Sikhs.”

            To quote again the Prachin Panth Prakash, “Once Nadir asked Zakariya Khan, ‘Tell me who these raiders are.  They who plunder my highways.  I shall reduce their country to ashes.’  The Nawab answered, ‘Their country is nowhere marked.  They get their sleep not in villages.  They know not the taste of salt or ghee.  We torment them, yet they flourish.  Long summer days they pass without water.  In winter they get no fire to warm themselves.  They do not have access to ground corn to eat.  They run to fight.  One battles like a hundred.  Death they fear not.  Devoutly they cherish to die for their faith.  We have become tired of killing them, but they are far from finished.’  Nadir further queried: ‘Whose followers are they?  Who is their prophet?  Or, are they sprung without any spiritual direction?’  ‘To Guru Nanak they owe their origin,’ said Zakariya Khan.”

            Just to prove to the world that the Sikhs had not been annihilated or vanquished, one Bota Singh stood in the most important highway in the Punjab, club in hand, levying a tax on all passersby.  Finding that everybody was tamely submitting to this demand, he sent a letter to the governor of Lahore himself.  The latter despatched a body of soldiers to overpower him.  Bota Singh, along with his companion, Garja Singh, fell fighting valiantly.  This happened in 1739.

            There were innumerable other instances of such pure and defiant heroism and martyrdom. Thus does the Prachin Panth Prakash narrate the story of Bhai Taru Singh: “Once the governor of Lahore asked his men, ‘From where do the Sikhs obtain their nourishment?  I have debarred them from all occupations.  They realize no taxes.  They do not farm, nor are they allowed to do business or join public employment.  I have stopped all offerings to their sacred places.  No provisions or supplies are accessible to them.  Why do they not die of sheer starvation?  My troops bar their way.  They search for them and they kill them where they see them.  I have burnt down entire villages with Sikh populations.  I have destroyed their remotest kin.  I have ferreted them out of the holes and slaughtered them.  The Mughals are hawks; the Sikhs are like quail. Vast numbers of them have been ensnared and killed.  No one can live without food.  I know not how the Sikhs survive without it?’”

            “Harbhagat Niranjania, who was a sworn foe of the Sikhs, answered, ‘There are Sikhs in this world who would not eat until they have fed their brethren.  They may themselves go without clothes and food, but cannot bear their comrades’ distress.  They will pass the cold season by fireside and send them their own clothes.  Some will sweat to grind corn and have it sent to them.  They will do the roughest chores to earn a small wage for their sake.  They migrate to distant places to eke out money for their brothers in exile.’”

            “The Nawab shook his head in despair, ‘They are unyielding people indeed.  Their annihilation is beyond our power, God alone will destroy them.’  Harbhagat Niranjania spoke again, ‘In the village of Puhla, in Majha, lives one Taru Singh.  He tills his land and pays the revenue to the official.  He eats but little and sends what he saves to his brothers in the jungles.  He has his mother and sister who both toil and grind to make a living.  They eat sparingly and they wear the coarsest homespun.  Whatever they save, they pass on to the Sikhs.  Besides the Sikhs, they own none other.  They recite the hymns of their Gurus.  Death they do not dread.  They visit not the Ganga or the Yamuna.  They bathe in the tank constructed by their own Guru.’”

            An officer was immediately sent with soldiers to apprehend Taru Singh.  Taru Singh was captured and brought to Lahore.  He was thrown into jail where he was given many tortures.  But, says the Prachin Panth Prakash, “as the Turks tormented Taru Singh, ruddier became his cheeks with joy.  As he was starved of food and drink, contentment reigned on his face.  He was happy in the Guru’s will.” Eventually, Taru Singh was presented before the Nawab who spoke: “If you become a Musalman, then alone will I remit your life.”

            “How do I fear for my life? Why must I become a Musalman?  Do not Musalmans die?  Why should I abandon my faith?  May my faith endure until my last hair—until my last breath,” said Taru Singh.  The Nawab tried to tempt him with offers of lands and wealth.  When he found Taru Singh inflexible, he decided to have his scalp scraped off his head.  The barbers came with sharp lancets and slowly ripped Bhai Taru Singh’s skull.  He rejoiced that the hair of his head, sacred for a Sikh, was still intact.  Bhai Taru Singh’s martyrdom took place on 1 July 1745.

            Facing persecution of the fiercest character, the Sikhs took from the Muslim tradition the very term shahid to designate such of their brethren as had earned the honour so to be described.  So great was the impact on the Sikh mind of the mass martyrdom undergone by the noblest and the best among them that one of their twelve misls or federating clans came to be known as Misl Shahidan (the Clan of the Martyrs). This misl was so named because of the celebrated leader, Baba Dip Singh Shahid, who fell a martyr in 1757 defending the holy Harimandar at Amritsar.  Since those times the term shahid has become in a special way a part of the Sikh vocabulary to signify fidelity to one’s faith in a manner in which no other non-Muslim group in India or elsewhere has adopted it.  Prior to this period in the eighteenth century, the term must already have gained wide currency among the Sikhs.  Since then and after, it has been applied to all those who wore the crown of martyrdom within the faith, from Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur and those who suffered death along with him to the hundreds of thousands who in the course of the eighteenth century and after met their end while defending the faith.

            To recall the sacrifices of the martyrs throughout the course of Sikh history is a part of the Sikh tradition while offering ardas or the daily supplicatory prayer morning and evening and, as a matter of fact, at all times, Shahids are in this context mentioned along with the faithful followers (murids) of the holy Gurus.  The details of the persecution suffered by them are recalled on these occasions, such as being sawn alive, boiled to death, broken on the wheel, having themselves flayed alive and suffering such other tortures.  The sacrifices of the women who, under the Mughal governors of Lahore were martyred, who had to grind loads of corn in captivity and who had their infants killed before their eyes, are recalled too.  Among the supreme martyrs mentioned are Guru Gobind Singh’s four sons (sahibzade).  The phenomenon of martyrdom and the term shahid are thus an integral part of the Sikh tradition.

            To mention some post-eighteenth century portions of Sikh history, the term shahid is applied for example to the Kuka (Namdhari) crusaders hanged or blown away from guns at Malerkotla in 1872.  It is applied to those who braved British bullets in the Komagata Maru episode of 1914-15, while asserting their right to live as equal citizens along with the whites in the British Empire.  Their objectives were, as is well known, revolutionary.  This was the first time that the term shahid was applied to those engaged in a political struggle.  Not long after, all who died while attempting to free Nankana Sahib, birthplace of Guru Nanak, from the corrupt hereditary priests in the general struggle for the reformation of the management of the Sikh shrines were designated as shahids.  Since then the term has been in very wide vogue, and has overstepped its earlier religious associations to cover all who made the supreme sacrifice in pursuit of some socially approved ideal.

            In Sikh Scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, clearly expressed injunctions to the true devotee are found not to shrink from making the supreme sacrifice in a holy cause.  Guru Nanak, in the text known as Alahnia (Dirges) expressing with deep compassion thoughts on death, makes a transition into moral idealism when he declares:

            Men! revile not Death:

            Death is not an evil, should one know how truly to die.

            The death of heroic men is holy,

            Should they lay down their lives for a righteous cause. (GG, 579)

              This is truly a call to mankind not to shirk from sacrificing life in pursuit of a worthy cause.  Guru Nanak in another context offers, through the symbolism of sport, the same exhortation:

            Shouldst thou be eager to join the game of love,

            Enter my street with thy head placed on thy palm:

            Stepping on to this path,

            Sacrifice thy head without demur. (GG, 1412)

            Kabir, whose compositions are preserved in the Guru Granth Sahib, portrays thus the spirit of heroism:

            The sky-resounding kettle-drum is sounded:

            The heart is pierced with the passion for righteousness.

            The hero, entering the field,

            Fights on without flinching;

            Know that man to be a true hero who fights in defence of the defenceless;

            Hacked limb by limb, he still flees not the field. (GG, 1105)

            Guru Gobind Singh, in a prayer addressed to the Lord, seeks the boon of laying down life on the field of battle, fighting to defend righteousness:

            Lord! grant me this boon:

            May I never turn my back on the right path;

            May I never turn my back in fear when face to face with the foe;

            May I ever direct my mind to chanting Thy praises;

            And when the end arrives,

            May I fall fighting squarely on the field of battle ( Chandi Charitra, 231)

Another text glorifying the spirit of martyrdom occurs at the close of the epic “Krishnavatar” in the Dasam Granth:

            Blessed be he whose tongue lauds God,

            and who in his mind contemplates holy war.

            This perishable frame shall not last;

            Let man through sacrifice sail in the ship of glory    

            And thereby swim across the ocean of the world.

            His body the home of spiritual poise

            His mind aglow like a lamp lit;

            With the broom of God-realization  

            Should he sweep away the dust-heap of cowardice.

             The twin supreme martyrdoms in the Sikh tradition are Guru Arjan’s (1606) and Guru Tegh Bahadur’s (1675).  Few details of Guru Arjan’s sacrifice have been preserved for us, except the general account of the tortures inflicted on him, such as putting him in a cauldron of boiled water and pouring parched sand over his body.  The brief account in Jahangir’s Tuzak (Memoirs) leaves no doubt as to the torture (yasa) and execution (siyasat) he underwent.  The Guru was offered the choice between accepting Islam and death.  He spurned the alternative of turning a renegade to his own spiritual convictions, and chose the alternative of a painful death inflicted in the traditions of the code of Chingez Khan.  For a glimpse of the Guru’s spiritual state, besides the account in Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth of Bhai Santokh Singh, we have the noble stanza in Bhai Gurdas’ Varan.  Santokh Singh’s account sets down Guru Arjan as listening to holy music by a minstrel who came seeking him near the place of his martyrdom at Lahore.  Transcending the pain and suffering, the Guru rendered his life to God in perfect peace of the spirit. The stanza by Bhai Gurdas opening the line, rahide Guru dariau vichi min kulin hetu nirbani, is cryptic and symbolic, yet invaluable as depicting the state of Guru Arjan’s soul.  An English rendering is given below:

            As creatures of water are one with the waves of the river.

            So was the Guru immersed in the River that is the Lord;

            As merges the moth at sight into the flame.

            So was the Guru’s light merged into Light Divine.

            In the extremest hours of suffering nothing entered his mind except the Divine Lord.

            Like the deer who hears no sound but the hunter’s drum,

            Like the bee wrapped inside the lotus,

            Passed he the night of this life as in a casket of joy;

            Never did he forget to utter the Lord’s Word

            Even as the Chatrik fails never to utter his cry;

            To a man of God joy is the fruit of devotion

            And meditation in holy company.

            May I be a sacrifice unto the holy Guru Arjan! (Varan, XXIV. 23)

            In respect of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the accounts, though still far from full, are more detailed than about Guru Arjan.  Details of Aurangzib’s religious policy of the suppression of non-Muslims have come down through several sources, thus placing Guru Tegh Bahadur’s sacrifice in the centre as the defence primarily of the right of the Hindu population to the practice of their faith.  The accounts of the Guru’s arrest on two different occasions only confirm the popular view that he was looked upon by the Mughal court as one whose teaching strengthened among the people the resolve to face hardships and death rather than renounce their faith under coercion.  Guru Tegh Bahadur thus defended dharma, which is righteousness, under a regime which had taken to the path of oppression and tyranny.  He stood for those values and decencies which the soul of India has evolved and cherished for millennia, and which are some of the noblest ideals held by humanity.  His sacrifice, therefore, was for a cause than which none could be higher.

            Besides the accounts of the Guru’s arrests, his journeys in the Punjab, Haryana and areas to the east, the invaluable testimony of Bachitra Natak, the autobiographical fragment by Guru Gobind Singh, is there to depict the spirit and essence of this sacrifice.  By the side of this scriptural testimony, all speculations of historians and all research based on partial and prejudiced sources loses its value.  This testimony, eloquent though terse, embodies within a few lines a whole heroic epic.  It may be reproduced here in an English rendering:

            The Lord protected the sacred mark on their forehead and the holy thread around the neck.

            And in Kali-yuga performed a mighty deed.

            To defend those who were in the right he spared himself no sacrifice;

            He gave away his head, but uttered not a groan.

            In order to uphold the truth he enacted this great deed;

            He sacrificed his life, but did not resile from his ideal.

            He spurned the exhibition of theatrical acts of miracle-mongering,

            Such as would shame devotees of God.

            Breaking the frame of his body on the head of the monarch of Delhi, he departed for realm celestial;

            None ever performed a noble deed like Tegh Bahadur’s.

            At Tegh Bahadur’s departure the world was plunged in grief:

            The world below wailed,

            But the heaven above sang songs of glory.  

            Into the last acts both of Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur may be seen the culmination of lives whose every moment had been a living martyrdom, to live for God and man, to serve and to spread the light of truth.  To the martyr his sacrifice is an act of God to be accepted in the spirit of the fullest resignation.  Should God design his life for fulfilment in the way of living out his days in action, he follows that in the spirit of perfect poise.  Should it please Him to send him pain and death, that is no less willingly accepted.  It is by such aptitude that the martyr’s life stirs great changes in societies and nations.  His example becomes the source of inspiration for others to mould their own lives on a similar model.

            While the essence of the teaching of Sikhism in relation to life-experience is transcendence of suffering through perfect resignation, this spirit is expressed in greater detail with a deeper power to touch the mind in Guru Arjan’s bani or sacred Word.  As one contemplates his teaching, one feels as though his spirit, in its prophetic moments, felt the suffering that was, through the inscrutable working of the Divine Law, to be his portion.  And in his sacred Word is an expression of the spirit that lays pain and suffering aside, and as in the poem of Bhai Gurdas mentioned earlier, despite suffering “his life was passed as in a casket of joy.”  Says Guru Arjan:

            Under the protection of the Lord not a single breath of hot air shall touch me;

            I am begirt by the miraculous protective Arc of Rama.

            Suffering fails to penetrate to me. (GG, 819)

            Whatsoever be Thy will, Lord, is sweet to me;

            All I crave is the wealth of Thy Name. (GG, 394)

             The same spirit pervades Guru Tegh Bahadur’s teaching.  One out of a number of instances may be given here, of the expression of the spirit of resignation, spiritual poise and merging of the spirit into the Divine Reality:

            One who by suffering is unperturbed;

            Not swayed by pleasure, attachment or fear,

            Holds gold and dust alike;

            Is free from gratification at praise or pain at censure;

            Is above avarice, attachment and conceit;

            Is untouched by pleasure and pain;

            Holds praise and dispraise alike;

            Has renounced lure of the world and covetousness;

            And frees himself from all desire,

            Abjures lust and wrath—

            In the mind of such a one does the Creator dwell.

            By grace of the Lord alone does man learn this way of life.

            Saith Nanak:  Such a one is merged into the Lord,

            As water into water. (GG, 633-34)

            The martyr must meet his end in perfect poise and in a spirit shunning all intent to hit back.  His utter non-violence arises not from the helplessness of one subdued by puissant tyranny, but by that spiritual state wherein all rancour, all bitterness and thought of revenge have been cast out from the mind.  The martyr is in the hands of God alone; from God comes his trial and to God alone he addresses his thoughts in his last moments. Without such a stance, his death would fail to attain to the noble state of martyrdom. Guru Tegh Bahadur’s last thoughts were only of the great task of guiding humanity along the path of righteousness.  To the continuance of his great mission he addressed his thoughts, like his grandfather, Guru Arjan, about three quarters of a century before him.   The martyrdom of each of these two great souls led to far-reaching historic consequences in transforming the character of the Sikh Church from mere congregationalism to that of a crusade.


1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1969

2. Bachitra Natak

3. Gurdas, Bhai, Varan.

4. Santokh Singh, Bhai, Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth. Amritsar, 1927-35

5. Lakshman Singh, Bhagat, Sikh Martyrs. Madras, 1928

Source – Concepts in Sikhism, pp. 279-293

Gurbachan Singh Talib