Martyrdom in Sikhism represents an important element of the faith: Sikh festivals mostly centre around the lives of the Gurus and Sikh martyrs. The first landmark in this field is the sacrifice by the Fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev. Guru Arjan was the first prophet in the religious history of India to be a martyr of faith. Guru Tegh Bahadur, the Ninth Guru, and Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Guru, both sacrificed themselves for the cause of truth or religion.
The Gurus kept an army and struggled with the oppressive Empire involving the loss of life of thousands of Sikhs who are considered, as in the case of Islam, another whole-life religion, martyrs. Secondly, the Sikh Gurus have demonstrated that not only is martyrdom a religious and essential institution, but it is also the most potent method of education and training a people for making sacrifices for the cause of righteousness, love and truth. This is amply proved by the capacity of the Sikhs to make maximum sacrifices for the cause of religion and man.
In Sikhism, Guru Nanak in the very beginning of his famous hymn ‘Japu Ji’, while rejecting the paths of ascetic one point meditation or withdrawal, emphatically prescribes carrying out or living according to the Will of God as the goal of man. “How to become the abode of Truth and how to demolish the wall of illusion or falsehood?”, he asks, and then proceeds to answer. “Through following His will”. He then defines the Will to be the ‘Ocean of Virtues’ (gunigahira) or Altruistic. The Gurus’ basic perception of this Will is that it is Loving or Love.
It is in this context that Guru Nanak proclaims that life is ‘a game of love’, and gives a call to humanity to follow this path. He says: “Shouldst thou seek to engage in the game of Love, step into my street with thy head placed on thy palm: While stepping on to this street, ungrudgingly sacrifice your head”. Repeated emphasis is laid on this goal of following the Will of God, Who is directing the universe, in Guru Granth Sahib: “Through perception of His will is the Supreme State attained”. “With the perception of his Will alone is the Essence realized”. “By perceiving the Lord’s Will is Truth attained”. “By His Will was the world created as a place for righteous living”. “Profoundly wondrous is the Divine Will. Whoever has its perception, has awareness of the true praxis of life”.
It should be clear that in Sikhism the goal is not to attain personal salvation or Moksha or ‘eternal bliss’. It is instead the perception or recognition of His Will and working in line with its direction. This state is in fact synonymous with God-realization.
The concept of martyrdom was laid down by Guru Nanak. In fact, his was an open challenge and a call. His hymn calling life ‘a game of love’ is of profoundest significance in Sikh thought and theology. It has five clear facets. It expresses in clear words the Guru’s spiritual experience of God. While he repeatedly calls Him unknowable, his own experience, he states, is that He is All Love. Second, He is Benevolent and Gracious towards man and the world. Third, since He expresses His Love in the world, the same, by implication, becomes real and meaningful.
Further, the Guru by giving this call clearly proclaims both the goal and the methodology of religious life in Sikhism. The goal is to live a life of love which is in line with His expression of Love and Grace in the world. Simultaneously, the methodology of whole-life activity and commitment for the goal is emphasized. The significant fact is that in the entire Guru Granth Sahib it is these principles of the Sikh way of life that are repeatedly emphasized. There are innumerable hymns endorsing one or the other of the above principles of Sikh theology.
It is this couplet of Guru Nanak that forms the base of martyrdom in Sikhism. For, the commitment desired is total, and once on that Path the seeker has to have no wavering in laying down his life for the cause. In his hymn Guru Nanak has defined and stressed that the institution of martyrdom is an essential ingredient of the Path he was laying down for man.