Vaisakhi 1699 – Lessons of Leadership
By Dya Singh
Vaisakhi 1699: Some primary lessons in leadership the Sikh way
(The masculine gender term 'him' unless used for a specific person, also includes the feminine gender 'her'.)
The story of Vaisakhi Day or Khalsa Day 1699 is one which at least every Sikh man, woman and child should know.
Tenth master Guru Gobind Singh Ji stood up in front of a crowd of 80,000, drew his sword and demanded a sacrifice - any Sikh to come forward and offer his head. If the first head demanded was considered an empty threat, then the sensation of Bhai Sahib Daya Singh Ji's head being taken by Guru Ji evidenced by a blood soaked naked sword, and four more heads demanded and taken, is the stuff of legends. I remember hearing the story when I first began to comprehend such things and how it moulded my character as a Sikh. This story is Sikh folk lore and the crowning pinnacle of Sikh life philosophy, and must be repeated on every Vaisakhi/Khalsa Day.
Dr. I J Singh, a prominent Sikh scholar observes: "The Guru created a productive, fearless and honest nation out of powerless people at the fringes of society. He created leaders out of ordinary men (and women) and then subjected himself to the will of his followers."
Besides the baptism of the harsh realities of this life and the character building aspects, this epic event also gives us some valuable lessons in leadership - much needed especially within our heierarchy amongst Sikh institutions and gurdwaras, and most urgently in the Punjab, the remnant left of a geographical location which we can (barely) call our own.
First of all, this one, individual event in Sikh history declares that every Sikh must be nurtured to have leadership qualities - seva lakh se aik ledaoon, tebi Gobind Singh naam kehaoon. Each of them shall be worth 125 thousand, only then can I justify the name Gobind Singh. This way of life is not about numbers, nor of a 'flock' mentality. This way of life is about leaders amongst men and women of this planet.
So what lessons do we learn?
1. First and foremost that a good leader works right from the outset to groom those under his charge to take over from him one day. So a good leader works himself out of a job - to ensure continuity. The human perishes but the job is ongoing. This is where Maharajah Ranjit Singh failed as a leader. He did not groom anyone to take over when he was gone. The Sikh Empire perished. Every Sikh should be a potential leader.
It is an observation from history that in a battle, if the commander could be killed, then normally the rest of the army would literally become leaderless (headless) and collapse. The British made an observation about confrontation with Sikhs - that the Sikhs became even more determined and fought with even greater vigour if the leader was brought down!
2. But, that does not mean that we only have 'Chiefs' but no 'Indians'! Every Sikh, a potential leader must be humble. Humility allows a leader to be a follower when required and work with his team rather than acting as a haughty lord and master. Guru Gobind Singh Ji clearly displayed this because after administering 'amrit' to the Panj Pyaray, (the five beloved ones) he then went down on one knee and requested them to administer 'Amrit' to him! There are also instances in Guru Ji's life when the Panj Pyaray overturned his commands or decisions and he accepted their decisions.
3. A good leader leads by example. He not only commands but shows that he is capable of following his own commands and does so when he has to. There is a very touching side-story to this epic of Khalsa Day 1699 that when Guru Ji requested for 'amrit' from the Panj Pyaray, they discussed the request, after being totally taken aback by the request from their Master. Then Bhai Daya Singh, the first of the Panj Pyaray asked Guru Ji (more in jest than seriousness perhaps) that they, the five of them, gave their heads for 'amrit' , what was Guru Ji offering for this request for amrit? There is a beautiful song (dharmic kaveta) about this story where Guru Ji says that he had already offered the sacrifice of his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji, and that soon he would be sacrificing his four sons too as part payment for the gift of 'amrit'. His mother too would perish. That finally, his life too would be forfeited for the glory of 'amrit' and what 'amrit' stood for, stands for today and into the future.
4. A good leader must be clear about the objectives which must be met and fully prepared with a clear well thought out and planned line of action having clearly worked out the pros and cons. Guru Ji had a very clear objective - turn around a down-trodden, defeatist, demoralised, suppressed 'people' into 'leaders amongst men and women' in one earth shattering event which would resonate through future generations. He would have worked out the pros and cons especially the consequences. Would even one man or woman answer the call? Could he get five? Would the gathering all scatter in dismay and confusion? What if his nearest and dearest ones turn against him? These were some of the consequences he would have had to consider.
As we know, the end result was Khalsa Day as we know it and a global 'Quom' (nation) of proud, upstanding community of leaders amongst humans.
Vaisakhi/Khalsa Day is about humility, love, compassion, readiness for self-sacrifice, willingness to work hard and working as a team, and setting high standards (amrit) to be the epitome of a high moral example of a true God-inspired human being - a leader amongst men and women.