Guide to the Festival of Vaisakhi

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A Comprehensive guide to the Festival of Vaisakhi

(11th of April 2008 – 20th of April 2008)

By John Roath
Baisakhi is one of the major festivals of Sikhs and is celebrated with lot of enthusiasm and gaiety in the state of Punjab and all throughout the world where there is a significant Sikh population. For the large farming community of Punjab, Baisakhi Festival marks the time for harvest of rabi crops and they celebrate the day by performing joyful bhangra and gidda dance. For the Sikh community, Baisakhi Festival has tremendous religious significance as it was on a Baisakhi Day in 1699, that Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru laid the foundation of Panth Khalsa-the Order of the Pure Ones
Date of Baisakhi
Baisakhi Festival falls on the first day of Vaisakh month (April-May) according to Nanakshahi or Sikh Calendar. For this reason, Baisakhi is also popularly known as Vaisakhi. According to English calendar, the date of Baisakhi corresponds to April 13 every year and April 14 once in every 36 years. This difference in Baisakhi dates is due to the fact that day of Baisakhi is reckoned according to solar calendar and not the lunar calendar. The auspicious date of Baisakhi is celebrated all over India under different names and different set of rituals and celebrations. Baisakhi date coincides with 'Rongali Bihu' in Assam, 'Naba Barsha' in Bengal, Puthandu in Tamil Nadu and 'Pooram Vishu' in Kerala.

Baisakhi Celebrations
People of Punjab celebrate the festival of Baisakhi with exuberance and devotion. As the festival has tremendous importance in Sikh religion, major activities of the day are organized in Gurdwaras. People wake up early to prepare for the day. Many also take bath in the holy river to mark the auspicious occasion. After getting ready people pay a visit to their neighbourdood gurdwara and take part in the special prayer meeting organized for the day. At the end of the Baisakhi ardas, congregates receive specially prepared Kara prasad or sweetened semolina. This is followed by a guru ka langar or community lunch.

Later, during the day people of Sikh faith take out a Baisakhi procession under the leadership of Panj piaras. The procession moves through the major localities of the city amidst the rendition of devotional songs by the participating men, women and children. Mock duels, bhangra and gidda performances make the procession joyous and colourful.

Celebrations by Farmers
For the large farming community of Punjab and Haryana, Baisakhi marks a New Year’s time as it is time to harvest rabi crop. On Baisakhi, farmers thank god for the bountiful crop and pray for good times ahead. People buy new clothes and make merry by singing, dancing and enjoying the best of festive food.

Cries of "Jatta aai Baisakhi", rent the skies as gaily men and women break into the bhangra and gidda dance to express their joy. Everyday farming scenes of sowing, harvesting, winnowing and gathering of crops are expressed through zestful movements of the body to the accompaniment of ballads and dhol music.

In several villages of Punjab Baisakhi Fairs are organized where besides other recreational activities, wrestling bouts are also held.

History of Baisakhi

Baisakhi or Vaisakhi Festival is celebrated as the Sikh New Year and the founding of the Khalsa Panth. History of Baisakhi traces its origin from the Baisakhi Day celebrations of 1699 organized by the Tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh to form Khalsa - Brotherhood of Saint Soldiers to fight against tyranny and oppression.

Story of Baisakhi
The story of Baisakhi Festival began with the martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru who was publicly beheaded by the Aurungzeb, the Mughal ruler. Aurungzeb wanted to spread Islam in India and Guru Tegh Bahadur stood up for the rights of Hindus and Sikhs and the Mughals therefore saw him as a threat.

After the death of Guru Teg Bahadur, his son, Guru Gobind Singh became the next Guru of the Sikhs. Guru Gobind Singh wished to instill courage and strength to sacrifice among his fellow men. To fulfil his dream, Guru Gobind Singh called on the historic Baisakhi Day congregation of Sikhs at Keshgarh Sahib near Anandpur on March 30, 1699.

When thousands of people assembled for Guru’s blessing, Guru Gobind Singh came out of the tent carrying an unsheathed sword. He gave a powerful speech to infuse courage amongst fellowmen. At the end of the speech he said that every great deed was preceded by equally great sacrifice and demanded that anyone prepared to give his life come forward. On the Guru’s third call, a young man offered himself. The Guru took the man inside a tent and reappeared alone with a bloodied sword. Guru Gobind Singh asked for another volunteer. This was repeated another four times until a total of five Sikhs had gone into the tent with the Guru. Everyone present was worried and though that Guru Gobind Singh has killed five Sikhs. At this point Guru presented all the five men before the people. Every one present was surprised to see all five men alive and wearing turbans and saffron-coloured garments
These five men were called Panj Piara or 'Beloved Five' by the Guru. The Guru blessed them with a Pahul ceremony. In an iron vessel, the Guru stirred with a sword called Khanda Sahib, the batasha that his wife, Mata Sundari Ji had put into water. The congregation recited verses from scriptures as the Guru performed the sacred ceremony. The water was now considered the sacred nectar of immortality called amrit. It was first given to the five volunteers, then drunk by the guru and later distributed amongst the crowd. With this ceremony, all those present, irrespective of caste or creed, became members of the Khalsa Pantha (the Order of the Pure Ones).

The Guru regarded the Panch Piaras as the first members of the Khalsa and the embodiment of the Guru himself. With the constitution of the Panj Pyare the high and low castes were amalgamated into one as among the original Panj Pyare, there was one Khatri, shopkeeper; one Jat, farmer; one Chhimba, calico printer; one Ghumar, water-carrier; and one Nai, a barber. The Guru gave the surname of Singh (Lion) to every Sikh and also took the name for himself. From Guru Gobind Rai he became Guru Gobind Singh. This was seen as a great step in national integration because society at that time was divided on the basis of religion, caste and social status.

Guru Gobind Singh also bestowed on Khalsa, the unique Sikh identity. He directed Sikhs to wear five K's: Kesh or long hair, Kangha or comb, Kripan or dagger, Kachha or shorts and a Kara or bracelet. Guru Gobind Singh also discontinued the tradition of Gurus and asked all Sikhs to accept the Grantha Sahib as their eternal guide. He urged them to come to him with their hair and beard unshorn to get baptized by the sword.

Legends of Baisakhi

There are various legends associated with the colourful and vibrant festival of Baisakhi. A study of these interesting legends of Baisakhi reveal that the day of Baisakhi is significant not just for Sikhs but also for Hindus and Buddhists alike. Besides, it is joyous to note that as a harvest festival, people of all communities in Punjab celebrate Baisakhi in a harmonious manner.
Harvest Festival
Baisakhi Festival marks the time for the harvest of Rabi crops and is therefore celebrated with utmost joy and enthusiasm in the state of Punjab where agriculture is the predominant occupation of the people. To celebrate the occasion, people dress themselves gaily and perform the joyful bhangra and giddha dance on the tune of the dhol. Farmers in Punjab celebrate Baisakhi Festival to hilt by feasting and merrymaking before they hit on tiring but joyful task of harvesting from the next day.

As a harvest festival, Baisakhi is also celebrated by different names and with different rituals in several regions of India. Regional celebrations of Baisakhi are marked as Rongali Bihu in Assam, Naba Barsha in Bengal, Puthandu in Tamil Nadu, Vishu in Kerala and Vaishakha in Bihar.

Birth of Khalsa
The day of Baisakhi marks the birth of Khalsa Panth and therefore holds tremendous significance for the Sikhs. It was on the Baisakhi Day meeting organized at Anandpur Sahib, in 1699, that the tenth Guru of Sikhs, Guru Gobind Sigh laid the foundation of Khalsa Panth and called on the Sikhs to sacrifice themselves for their community
Besides, it was on the Baisakhi Day that Guru Gobind Singh administered amrit (nectar) to his first batch of five disciples, the Panj Piaras making them Singhs, a martial community. After the Baisakhi Day in 1699 the tradition of gurus was discontinued, and the Granth Sahib - the Holy book of the Sikhs was declared the eternal guide of the Sikhs.

Day to Receive Guru’s Blessings for Sikhs
According to a popular legend in Sikhism, it was on the day of Baisakhi in 1567 that Guru Amar Das had first institutionalized Baisakhi as one of the special days when all Sikhs would gather to receive the guru's blessings at Goindwal.
Martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev
Yet another legend related to Baisakhi, says that on the day of Baisakhi Guru Arjan Dev was martyred by the Muslim rulers. It is said that in an act of barbaric cruelty Muslim rulers threw the Guru alive into a cauldron of boiling oil.

Foundation of Arya Samaj
The day of Baisakhi Festival is also important for the Hindus as it on this day in 1875 that Swami Dayanand Saraswati founded the Arya Samaj - a reformed sect of Hindus who are devoted to the Vedas for spiritual guidance and have discarded idol worship.

Attainment of Nirvana by Gautam Buddha
For the Buddhist, the day of Baisakhi Festival is significant, as according to a popular legend it was on this auspicious day that Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment or Nirvana under the Mahabodhi tree in the town of Gaya. For this reason, the day of Baisakhi is celebrated as Buddha Purnima is several parts of the country.
Baisakhi Day or Vaisakhi Day of March 30th, 1699 is of significant importance for the Sikhs. It was on this day that Guru Gobind Singh - the Tenth Guru of the Sikhs founded the Akal Khalsa (Community of the Pure) at a ceremony organized at Keshgarh Sahib near Anandpur. The Akal Khalsa played a significant role in resistance against Mughal rule. Every year on April 13 Sikhs celebrate with pomp and gusto the birth of the Khalsa Panth.

The Background
In the year 1667 Aurungzeb, the Mughal Emperor installed himself as the Emperor of India after annihilating almost all his family opposition. Immediately after gaining power, Aurungzeb embarked on a policy of religious persecution and started the process of Islamization of India. Brahmins became the prime targets of Aurungzeb in this regard as his clerics made him convinced that once the Brahmins accepted Islam the others would follow. Pursuing his agenda, Aurungzeb levied unethical religious taxes against Hindus and shut their temples and places of learning.

The Brahmins, particularly those of Kashmir, desperately felt the need for a dynamic leadership to fight this subversion by the Mughal Emperor. They approached Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621-1675), the ninth in the line of Sikh Gurus, who was on the throne of the Sikh religion and asked him for guidance on the issue.

During this meeting, Guru Tegh Bahadur's nine-year-old son, Gobind Rai, was sitting beside him. Finding Guru Tegh Bahadur under deep contemplation, the young son asked the reason of his repose. The Guru explained the situation to the child and said the world is aggrieved by oppression and no brave man had yet come forward to willingly sacrifice his life to free the earth from the burden of Aurangzeb's persecution of Hindus. To this young Gobind Rai replied, "For that purpose who is more worthy than thou who art at once generous and brave.” Pleased with his son’s reply, Guru Tegh Bahadur entrusted the Guruship to Gobind Rai and proceeded towards Delhi, the seat of the Mughal Empire.

Just as they reached Delhi, the mighty Aurangzeb imprisoned the Guru and his loyal attendants. Foreseeing his ecclesiastic journey during imprisonment, Guru Tegh Bahadur thought of testing his son's courage and capability to carry on the Guru's mission. In a letter to Gobind Rai, the Guru wrote, "My strength is exhausted, I am in chains and I can make not any efforts. Says Nanak, God alone is now my refuge. He will help me as He did his Saints.” In his reply young Guru Gobind Rai wrote, "I have regained my Power, my bonds are broken and all options are open unto me. Nanak, everything is in Thine hands. It is only Thou who can assist Thyself.”

Later, Guru Tegh Bahadur was martyred in Delhi in the presence of hundreds of people. The executioner abandoned the Guru's body in the open. But no one dared to come forward to claim the body to perform religious rites. Even the ardent disciples withdrew unrecognized. It was only when the stormy weather occurred, that two persons took advantage of the situation and covertly took the body of Guru Tegh Bahadur for cremation. This cowardice of Sikhs incited in Gobind Rai an urge to endow his Sikhs with a distinct identity.

With the desire to instill courage and strength to sacrifice among his fellow men, Gobind Rai became the tenth Sikh Guru. At the age of 33, Guru Gobind had Divine inspiration to actuate his designs. The Guru found the occasion of Baisakhi could serve his purpose, as every year thousands of devotees would come to Anandpur at the time of Baisakhi (springtime) to pay their obeisance and seek the Guru's blessings. Early in the year 1699, months before Baisakhi Day, Guru Gobind Rai sent special edicts to congregates far and wide that that year the Baisakhi was going to be a unique affair. He asked them not to cut any of their hair and to come with unshorn hair under their turbans and chunis. Besides, men were asked to come with full beards.

The Baisakhi Day of March 30, 1699
At the call of the Guru, thousands of people gathered at the Anandpur Sahib, the famous Golden Temple of Amritsar, India on the Vaisakhi Day, March 30, 1699. To instill courage in the fellow men, Guru Gobind made a powerful oration and revealed to them his divine mission of restoring amongst Sikhs and preserving the Sikh religion. At the end of his speech, the Guru flashed his unsheathed sword and said that every great deed was preceded by equally great sacrifice and demanded one head for oblation. To the Guru’s call, Daya Ram, a Khatri of Lahore offered himself. The Guru took him inside a tent. A little later he reappeared with his sword dripping with blood, and asked for another head. One by one four more earnest devotees - Daram Das - a Jat of Delhi, Mohkam Chand - a washerman of Dwarka (Gujarat), Himmat - a cook of Jagannath (Orissa) and Sahib Chand - a barber of Bidar (Karnataka) offered their heads. Every time the Guru took a person inside the tent, he came out with a bloodied sword in his hand.

Astonished with their Guru’s behavior and believing him to have gone berserk, people started to disperse. Shortly after, Guru Gobind emerged with all five men dressed piously in white. He baptized the five in a new and unique ceremony called 'Khande di Pahul' (the double-edged Sword Amrit), what Sikhs today call Amrit. After this, the Guru asked the five baptized Sikhs to baptize him as well. They were then knighted as Singhs, as the Five beloved ones, the first members of the new community of equals, to be called the Khalsa, meaning "pure". Guru Gobind proclaimed that the Panj Pyare or the Five Beloved Ones would be the embodiment of the Guru himself, “Where there are Panj Pyare, there am I. When the Five meet, they are the holiest of the holy."

These "saint soldiers" were to dedicate their lives to the service of others and the pursuit of justice for people of all faiths. The Guru also said whenever and wherever the five baptized or Amritdhari Sikhs comes together, the Guru would be present. All those who receive Amrit from five baptized Sikhs will be infused with the spirit of courage and strength to sacrifice. Thus with these principles, Guru Gobind established Panth Khalsa, the Order of the Pure Ones.

The Guru also gave his new Khalsa a unique, indisputable, and distinct identity. The Guru gave the gift of bana, the distinctive Sikh clothing and headwear. He also offered five emblems of purity and courage. These symbols, worn by all baptized Sikhs of both sexes, are popularly known today as Five Ks:

  • Kesh, unshorn hair

  • Kangha, the wooden comb

  • Karra, the iron (or steel) bracelet

  • Kirpan, the sword

  • Kachera, the underwear

This act of total surrender of one's life to the service of the AKAL (God), the Timeless One, and at the feet of Guru Gobind Singh created the Sikh religion. For many centuries after that, the first male child of all families of Hindus in Punjab was ordained as a Sikh.

Social Significance of Baisakhi Day
Apart from fighting the political tyranny, Guru Gobind also sought to eliminate social discriminations in the name of caste with the establishment of Khalsa Panth. The Panj Piyaras set by the Guru amalgamated people of low and high caste into one as it consisted of people of different strata of the society.

To further do away with the system of caste discrimination and to give to all Sikhs an opportunity to live lives of courage, sacrifice, and equality, the Guru gave the surname of Singh (Lion) to every Sikh and also took the name for himself. From Guru Gobind Rai, he became Guru Gobind Singh. He also pronounced that all Sikh women embody royalty, and gave them the surname Kaur (Princess).

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