"Divali" - the most popular Sikh historical fiction

Karminder Singh Dhillon | Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Divali is a Hindu festival that is celebrated by lighting oil lamps, called diva. Many Sikhs celebrate Divali, often disguised as Bundi Chhor Divas, within their local gurdwaras. This occasion is typically observed as a full-scale program with kirtan, katha and Ardas, with the added spectacle of lighting the premises with excessive lights and divaas, and encouraging the sangat to bring extra sweets for langar.

The parbandhaks, parchaaraks and raagis of these gurdwaras propagate Divali by distorting Sikh history to connect Divali to our Gurus, falsifying Bhai Gurdas’ writings to link Divali to Sikh teachings, and feigning ignorance to follow the diva extravaganza at Darbar Sahib and other takhats on Divali.


And, are some Sikhs so eager to celebrate Divali and so fervent to want to link it to Sikh practice and tradition that they simply have to find or concoct an incident that is suggested to have happened around that day and use it as a pretext to celebrate?

The euphoria of Bundi Chhor – a Guru being released from prison – needs a closer look within the context of Sikh history.
Guru Nanak's bundi chhor
In 1521, Mughal Emperor Baabur attacked Saidpur, in Ahmenabad, and reduced the city to rubble. Guru Nanak witnessed the destruction and stood up to Babur and criticized him in spiritual yet stinging terms. The four shabads of this incidents are known as Baaburvaani. The following is an excerpt:
Guru Granth, ang 722:
ਪਾਪ ਕੀ ਜੰਞ ਲੈ ਕਾਬਲਹੁ ਧਾਿੲਆ ਜੋਰੀ ਮੰਗੈ ਦਾਨੁ ਵੇ ਲਾਲੋ ॥
paap kee jannjhu lai kaabalah, dhaaeiaa joree mungai daan vae laalo ||
Bringing the marriage party of sin, Baabur has invaded from Kabul, demanding our land as his wedding gift, O Lalo.
ਸਰਮੁ ਧਰਮੁ ਦੁਿੲ ਛਪਿ ਖਲੋੲੇ ਕੂੜੁ ਿਫਰੈ ਪਰਧਾਨੁ ਵੇ ਲਾਲੋ ॥
saramu dharamu duei chupi khaloae, koorru firai pardhaanu vae laalo ||
Modesty and righteousness both have vanished and falsehood struts around like a leader, O Lalo.
The result of the criticism was a harsh jail sentence for Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana. They were thrown into prison with thousands of others, mostly women and children, to be sold as slaves in Kabul. Guru Nanak gave solace to the prisoners and confronted Baabur as their representative. Realizing his folly, Baabur ordered Guru Nanak's release. The Guru accepted on condition that each and every prisoner be released with him. Baabur agreed. Guru Nanak’s power over Baabur is also mentioned in Bhai Gurdas ji’s Vaaraan
Bhai Gurdas, Vaar 26, pauri 21:
ਬਾਬਰ ਕੇ ਬਾਬੇ ਮਿਲੇ ਨਿਵਿ ਸਭ ਨਬਾਬ ਨਿਵਾਿਆ ।
baabar kae baabae milae nivi nivi sabh nabaab nivaaeiaa.
Men of Babur met with him (Guru Nanak); all nobility bowed with humility.
Now the question: Why don't Sikhs celebrate Guru Nanak's Bundi Chhor Divas? Why is there no deepmaala (garland of divaas) to commemorate this day? Because it did not coincide with Divali?
Guru Hargobind's bundi chhor
In 1606, after having kept Guru Arjan in prison, Mughal Emperor Juhaangeer tortured and killed the fifth Guru in the most inhumane and cruel way. This was the first martyrdom of the Sikhs. The execution of their peace loving and beloved Guru had a lasting impact on the Sikh psyche. The Panth was tormented and beleaguered beyond imagination. His son, Hargobind, was 11.
Guru Hargobind was arrested some years later and imprisoned in Gwalior Fort. Historical records show he was released in 1619, along with 52 Hindu rajaas that were held in the same prison. 
Gwalior Fort.
Sikhs are misled to believe that upon securing the release of the 52 raajaas, Guru Hargobind arrived in Amritsar on Divali, and the Sikhs celebrated by lighting deepmaala at Darbar Sahib. 
First, it is impossible to imagine that the Sikhs would have decided to have any grand celebration, Divali or otherwise, with the martyrdom of Guru Arjan still fresh on their minds. 
Second, it is impossible to imagine that Guru Hargobind would have allowed or condoned such a grand celebration to commemorate his own release from prison. For someone who was prepared to die in battle four times against the Mughals, for someone to call upon his Sikhs to be ever prepared to lay down their lives for justice, being jailed would have been as trivial as being released.
But, even if we accept this bundi chhor story, it has significant loose ends. Why was Guru Hargobind released on Divali?

Note: It is unclear when Guru Hargobind was arrested and whether he spent his entire imprisonment at Gwalior Fort. Juhaangeer arrested Guru Hargobind some time after the completion of the Akal Takhat, in 1609, probably around 1612. He was likely imprisoned in Gwalior Fort around 1617. And released in 1619.

Note: Guru Hargobind had several important admirers in Juhaangeer's court. Among them were Hakim Aleem u Din Ansari, popurlarly known as Wazir Khan, who was the governor of Sirhind. He also was a master of the Arabic language and of medicines. Also among his admirers was Baba Sain Mir Mohammed Sahib, popularly known as Mian Mir. He was a famous Muslim Sufi saint, from Lahore. He also was the spiritual guide of Noorjahaan, Juhaangeer's favorite wife who held great influence over his administration. According to the "Bansiwala Nama dus Padshahian," junumsaakhi by Kesar Singh Chibber, dated 1769, Noorjahaan told her husband that the holy man, Guru Hargobind, is like God, and that he should not have arrested him. With Guru Arjan's martyrdom, Guru Hargobind's imprisonment and with local raajas imprisoned, the emperor became fearful of a mass rebellion.

Note: Bhatts were bard poets that recorded historical events. According to thesikhencyclopedia.com, the first Guru to have bhatts in his darbar was Guru Arjan. A few of them became devout Sikhs and wrote hymns in praise of Guru Arjan and his predecessors, which are preserved in the Guru Granth Sahib. Some also took part in Guru Hargobind`s battles against the Mughals. The saakheeaan are narratives of Guru Hargobind to Guru Gobind Singh, and Bunda Singh. They also include vahees, genealogical records of ancestry, date, day, tithi and even exact times of particular events connected with the Gurus. 

For all intents and purposes, Juhaangeer considered Guru Hargobind a Hindu because entries written by the emperor in his official diary, “Tauzekey Juhaangeeri” (page 35), show he considered Guru Arjun a Hindu. The 52 raajaas also were Hindu. It is thus likely that the emperor decided to make a public statement of goodwill by releasing them all on a day that was auspicious to HIndus. 
In the 1790 compilation, Guru Kiaan Saakheeaan, in Bhaatt Vahee (pages 27-28), the writer gives the following account of Guru Hargobind’s release from Gwalior. It confirms he left on Divali: 
Guru ji was released from Gwalior on Katak Vadee 14, 1619. He proceeded to the home of Hari Ram Daroga (a Hindu) who performed a deepmala in his home on Divali night.
Was it possible for Guru Hargobind to arrive in Amritsar on Divali?
Gwalior is approximately 500 miles south of Amritsar. An express train from Delhi, just about 290 miles south, takes eight hours to Amritsar. The mode of travel during the Guru’s time was horseback or a horse carriage. Even if Guru Hargobind had rushed back to Amristar without stopping to meet any of the sangats that would have gathered to greet him at the many villages from Gwalior to Agra to Delhi to Amritsar, he would have arrived four or five days, if not weeks, after Divali. 
Not meeting with the sangats en-route and rushing back to Amritsar is highly uncharacteristic of any Guru. What would he have been rushing for? To sit on a throne as the 53rd Hindu raaja? 
The Gwalior account in Guru Kiaan Saakheeaan continues with a chronology of Guru Harbobind's travels to Amritsar:
On Fagan 1, 1619, Guru Hargobind reached Nannaul Pargna, in Batala, where he met with Baba Budha, Bhai Gurdas and other Sikhs. From there, Guru ji  proceeded to attend the funeral of his uncle, Prithi Chand, in Heher village. On Magh 1, 1620, Guru ji arrived in Pargna Nijhar-ala and proceeded to Guru Ka Chowk, in Amritsar, where he arrived with Arjani, son of Mohre; Meharvan, son  of Prithi Chand; Bhai Ballu, the grandfather of Bhai Mani Singh; Baba Budha; Bhai Gurdas and other prominent Sikhs. 
This shows Guru Hargobind’s journey from Gwalior to Amritsar took 98 days - more than three months! 
Given that lighting lamps was the standard way of providing light, and given that huge crowds were present when Guru Hargobind arrived in Amritsar, a great many lamps may indeed have been used for their practical value. But if using many lamps constituted deepmaala, virtually every day before the advent of electricity would have been a deepmaala day at Darbar Sahib.
The only Divali in Sikh history - Bhai Mani Singh’s martyrdom
In 1737, Bhai Mani Singh sought to have a gathering of Sikhs at Darbar Sahib. The local ruler agreed not to persecute the Sikhs who attended, provided bhai ji agreed to pay a fee. But, upon discovering that the ruler had devised a plan to attack the sangat, bhai ji sent notices to the Sikhs to not attend this function. He also refused to allow the existing golak of the Guru ghar to settle the amount due. As a result, Bhai Mani Singh was cut up limb-by-limb, on the day of Divali.
Sikhs are misled to believe that this great saheed intended to celebrate Divali at Darbar Sahib. But was it his intention to celebrate Divali as a Sikh religious function, or to gather Sikhs and hold a darbar of kirten, kutha and langar on a convenient mainstream holiday?
In any case, the function was never held. More importantly, the outcome of the Diwali of 1737 was the cruel mutilation of a brave, noble, bright and principled jewel of the Sikh community. Only one thing can be worse than this barbaric annihilation of a man of God - To use his name and his sacrifice to sanction us Sikhs to do deepmaalaas, distribute sweets and celebrate a day that has nothing to do with Sikhi or with the martyr. Those who are most guilty of such gross heresy are the present day guardians of the Darbar Sahib.
What is also disturbing is that the roots of the great martyrdom of a great brahm gyani panth rattan soul lay in his desire to maintain the sanctity and dignity of Darbar Sahib. But now the guardians of the same seat of Sikh authority are bent on soiling its sanctity! 
Bhai Mani Singh's shaheedhi.
The most commonly misquoted shabad related to Divali is derived from Bhai Gurdas ji’s vaar 19, pauri 6. Raagis misrepresent this shabad as evidence that Divali and diva are authentic Sikh practices. For a full understanding, the entire pauri is quoted and explained below. 
ਦੀਵਾਲੀ ਦੀ ਰਾਤਿ ਦੀਵੇ ਬਾਲੀਅਨਿ ।
deevaalee dee raati deevay baaleeani
The lamps of the night of Divali eventually burn out.
ਤਾਰੇ ਜਾਤਿ ਸਨਾਤਿ ਅੰਬਰਿ ਭਾਲੀਾਨਿ ।
taaray jaati sanaati anbari hhaaleeani.
The stars of the night sky stop sparkling when dawn comes.
ਫੁਲਾਂ ਦੀ ਬਾਗਤਿ ਚੁਣਿ ਚਾਲੀਅਨਿ ।
phulaan dee baagaati chuni chuni chaaleeani
The beauty of the garden disappears as the flowers are picked.
ਤੀਰਥਿ ਜਾਤੀ ਜਾਤਿ ਨੈਣ ਨਿਹਾਲੀਾਨਿ ।
teerathi jaatee jaati nain nihaaleeani.
The gaiety of the place of pilgrimage dies when the crowds leave.
ਹਰਿਚੰਦੳੁਰੀ ਝਾਤਿ ਵਸਾਇ ੳੁਚਾਲੀਅਨਿ ।
harchandauree jhaati vasaaei uchaaleeani
Just as the imaginary town of Harchandauree was settled and then demolished, life - even as bestowed by God - is temporary.
ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਸੁਖ ਫਲ ਦਾਤਿ ਸਬਦਿ ਸਮ੍ਲਲੀਅਨਿ ॥੬॥ 
gurmukhi sukh phal daati sabadi samhaaleeani ॥6॥
Yet, the Gurmukh is blessed with the fruit of permanent joy through immersion in the Shabad.
Note: The online translations on searchgurbani.com and sikhiwiki.org are incorrect.
The generic rule of the more than 5,867 shabads in the Guru Granth is that the main message is encapsulated in the rahaao line. But the generic rule of the 3 swayeeaas, 672 kabits, and 912 paurees of the 40 vaars of Bhai Gurdaas is that the main message is encapsulated in the final verse. The previous lines are illustrations and explanations that deliver the message in the concluding line.
The message of this pauri is: The Gurmukh seeks permanent bliss from the Shabad. The joy that comes from the Shabad is not temporary, like the twinkle of divaas that burn out on Divali night, the star-lit sky that disappears when the day comes, the beautiful gardens that vanish once the flowers are picked, the joyous atmosphere of holy places that evaporates after the pilgrims leave, or human life itself at its end.
Guru Arjan bestowed the title of "gurbani di kunji," or “the key to understanding Gurbani,” to Bhai Gurdaas' writings. In other words, the key to unlocking the treasures of the Guru Granth is in bhai sahib’s explanations. Guru Arjan recognized him as an explainer par-excellence of Gurbani. 
In all of his writings, Bhai Gurdas extolls Sikhs to link with the Shabad – the Message within the Guru Granth. To use the first line of this pauri – deevaalee dee raati deevay baaleeani  – as justification to light divaas or to otherwise celebrate Divali night is ignorance, feigned or genuine.

Note: “The Vaars of Bhai Gurdas clearly indicate that Bhai Gurdas was fully conversant and proficient in the art of history writing,” writes Kuldip Singh, former president of the Institute of Sikh Studies, in Chandigarh. “This is borne out by his narration of only significant events from the life of Guru Nanak.” There is no doubt that he was prevented, likely by Guru Amra Das ji, from writing about the remarkable events concerning the Gurus and the Sikhs, which were happening in front of him, because it would have resulted in something akin to writing the Ramayana and would have taken the Sikhs away from Gurbani. 

If Bhai Gurdas ji’s intention were to justify lighting divas as a Sikh practice, then gazing at stars in line 2 could be his call to Sikhs to worship the planets. And line 4 could be his call to Sikhs to go on pilgrimages. Absurd.

A cursory examination of the language used by Bhai Gurdas also reveals his intention. Lamps are lighted. The word for lighted is "jagaaeeani." However, bhai ji uses the word "baaleeani," meaning burned. He says, “Lamps burn away.” The emotion behind lighting a lamp is generally positive. Lighting lamps give one a sense of creating light and brightness. But the emotion he evokes here is concerned with the temporariness of that emotion – that divaas, no matter how many nice feelings they evoke on Divali night, eventually burn out or burn to cinder. He uses divay on Divali night to explain the concept of temporariness of joyful things in life as opposed to the permanence of the joy felt in understanding the Shabad – which is his main concern.

To interpret this line as a call by Bhai Gurdaas to Sikhs to “burn” lamps on Divali night is to miss the point all together. Attempts by some of our raagees and parchaaraks to stretch to the breaking point the meaning of this line requires nothing short of distortion.

Divali, diva not in Gurbani
No raagi or parchaarak has been able to find a single shabad from the Guru Granth that mentions Divali. In fact, neither the word Divali nor any of its equivalents appear in the Guru Granth even once. This alone should make any Sikh wonder.
There also is no Sikh spiritual activity that revolves around a diva. Beyond being a practical device for providing light, Gurbani discounts any and all diva-related rituals, and instead uses the diva as a metaphor to give inner spiritual context to the meaning of true Light. 
On ang 878 of the Guru Granth, in Raag Ramkali, for instance, Guru Nanak devotes an entire shabad to the lighting of the inner diva - Enlightenment. The following is an excerpt:
ਅਹਿਨਿਸਿ ਦੀਵਾ ਬਲੈ ਅਥਕੁ ॥੧॥
ahinis dheevaa balai athhak ||1||
Such a lamp shall perpetually burn day and night.
ਅੈਸਾ ਦੀਵਾ ਨੀਰਿ ਤਰਾਿੲ ॥
aisaa dheevaa neeri haraaei ||
Float such a lamp on water.
ਜਿਤੁ ਦੀਵੈ ਸਭ ਸੋਝੀ ਪਾਿੲ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾੳੁ ॥
jith dheevai sabh sojhee paaei ||1|| Rehaao ||
This is the Lamp by which you shall procure all Knowledge. Pause.
ਹਛੀ ਮਿਟੀ ਸੋਝੀ ਹੋਿੲ ॥
hachhee mittee sojhee Hoei ||
The Lord's comprehension is the good clay.
ਤਾ ਕਾ ਕੀਅਾ ਮਾਨੈ ਸੋਿੲ ॥
thaa kaa keeaa maanai soei ||
The Lord accepts the lamp made of such clay.
ਕਰਣੀ ਤੇ ਕਰਿ ਚਕਹੁ ਢਾਲਿ ॥
karannee thae kari chakahu Daali ||
Make good acts your wheel and shape your lamp upon it.
ਅੈਬੈ ੳਖੈ ਨਿਬਹੀ ਨਾਲਿ ॥੨॥
aithhai outhhai nibehee naal ||2||
In this world and the next, this lamp will stand by you.
ਤਿਤੁ ਘਟਿ ਦੀਵਾ ਨਿਹਚਲੁ ਹੋਿੲ ॥
thithi ghatt dheevaa nihachalu hoei ||
Within the mind, this lamp becomes permanent.
ਪਾਣੀ ਮਰੈ ਨ ਬੁਝਾਿੲਆ ਜਾਿੲ ॥
paannee marai n bujhaaeiaa jaaei ||
It is neither destroyed by water nor extinguished by wind.
ਅੈਸਾ ਦੀਵਾ ਨੀਿਰ ਤਰਾਿੲ ॥੩॥
aisaa dheevaa neeri tharaaei ||3||
Such a lamp shall ferry you across.
ਡੋਲੈ ਵਾੳੁ ਨ ਵਡਾ ਹੋਿੲ ॥
ddolai vaao n vaddaa hoei ||
It does not shake in the wind, nor does it blow out.
ਜਾਪੈ ਜਿੳੁ ਸਿੰਘਾਸਣਿ ਲੋਿੲ ॥
jaapai jio singhaasanni loei ||
With its Light the Lord's throne is seen.
Gurbani accords similar treatment to another practice involving the diva - aarti - the Hindu ritual of offering divaas to dieties, typically on a pearl-studded platter with incense and flowers. All rituals are prohibited. Instead, Gurbani provides inner spiritual context to true aarti.
On ang 13 of the Guru Granth, in Raag Dhhanaasari, for instance, Guru Nanak devotes an entire shabad to what is true aarti - Nature. The following is an excerpt:
ਗਗਨ ਮੈ ਥਾਲੁ ਰਵਿ ਚੰਦੁ ਦੀਪਕ ਬਨੇ ਤਾਰਿਕਾ ਮੰਡਲ ਜਨਕ ਮੋਤੀ ॥
gagan mai thhaalu rav chandh dheepaku banae thaarikaa manddal janak mothee ||
The sky is the cosmic platter upon which the sun and the moon are lamps (divaa), and the stars with their orbs are the studded pearls.
ਧੂਪੁ ਮਲਆਨਲੋ ਪਵਣੁ ਚਵਰੋ ਦਰੇ ਸਗਲ ਬਨਰਾਿੲ ਫੂਲੰਤ ਜੋਤੀ ॥੧॥
dhhoopu malaaanalo pavannu chavaro karae sagal banaraaei foolanth jothee ||1||
The fragrance of sandalwood is Your incense, the wind is Your whisk (chaur), and all the vegetation are Your flowers.
ਕੈਸੀ ਆਰਤੀ ਹੋਿੲ ॥
kaisee aarathee hoei ||
What a beautiful aarti this is.
ਭਵ ਖੰਡਨਾ ਤੇਰੀ ਆਰਤੀ ॥
bhav khanddanaa thaeree aarathee ||
All of existence in this entire universe is aarti for You.
Given that Gurbani injunctions already existed, it is unlikely that Sikhs would have indulged in a mass lamp-lighting ritual to welcome their Guru. It is even more unlikely that the Guru would have allowed his Sikhs to indulge in a ritual that was not only of no significance in Sikhi but against Gurmat. It is more likely that huge numbers of Sikhs thronged to visit Guru Hargobind on the way from Agra to Amritsar, and he had divaans of kirtan, kathaa, langar and parchar for weeks, culminating in a grand gathering at Darbar Sahib.
If one assumes that Guru Hargobind began the practice of deepmaala, in defiance of the teachings of the first five Gurus, then one must look at other historical events of stature and importance. 
It is worth noting that there is no record of the Sikhs having performed deepmaala when Darbar Sahib was inaugurated, or during the first parkash of the Guru Granth, or when the Akaal Takhat was inaugurated, or when Guru Hargobind created his Peeri-Meeri army, or when he returned victorious in each of the four wars he fought with the Mughals.
These events occurred within a 50-year span, before and after his release from Gwalior. If indeed deepmaala were an accepted practice, then it would have been done on all these other occasions. Yet, it was not. 
Surely no Sikh would have trouble accepting that all of the historic events above would be of a higher importance to the Guru than his release from prison. Why then is a lesser event being celebrated with a grand deepmaala?
In what can be described as a senseless waste of funds, money and energy sincerely contributed by Sikhs who look to the Darbar Sahib for guidance, parbandhaks of this seat of holiness conduct at virtually every Divali night a public production with ostentatious display of fireworks, deepmaala, and distribution of sweets. 
To see Darbar Sahib and other leading gurdwara sahibs and takhats – notably Patna Sahib and Damdama Sahib - take part in a ritual so decidedly critiqued by the Guru Granth, on an occasion so unrelated to Sikhi, is a clear indication of the complete corruption that has seeped into all facets of Sikh leadership.
No authority at Darbar Sahib, Patna Sahib or Damdama Sahib has been able to justify their Divali night extravaganza, except to misquote Bhai Gurdaas and tortuously link his writings to Bundhi Chhor Divas and Bhai Mani Singh’s shaheedhi. 
No one can authoritatively give a time frame when this practice began. It certainly was not practiced during the Gurus’ times because there is no mention of it in the Guru Granth. Such a practice certainly did not happen during the 100 years or so after the joti jot of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, in 1716. The Sikhs, hunted as they were by the rulers of the day, were hiding out in the jungles as guerillas.
The Darbar Sahib itself was destroyed many times over during this period to prevent the Sikhs from even secretly visiting. 
This period is replete with tales of Sikhs challenging each other to go for a dip in the sarovar of Darbar Sahib. The challenge was substantial as it involved the risk of being caught and losing one’s life. The price of the head of a Sikh was up to 80 rupees. It is thus difficult to believe that Sikhs would have conducted a deepmaala or any celebration every year on Divali under such circumstances during these 100 years.
But, it is highly likely that Divali related deepmaala crept into Sikh gurdwara sahibs sometime during this tumultuous 100-year period. 
Since the Sikhs were fighting for survival in the jungles of Punjab, the hills of Jammu and the deserts of Raajasthan, the Sikh gurdwara sahibs, including major historical sites, were in the hands of mahants - government-backed deviants donning a Sikh facade. By and large they were anti-Sikh and had their philosophies rooted in Bhramanical beliefs. This was a period when Bhramanical rituals such as Lohree, Maghee, Rakhree, Shraad, Sangraand, Maasiya, Puranmashi, Karvaa Chauth, Dusheraa and Divaali were planted into and institutionalized as “Sikh” practices. 
One century was more than enough for these empty rituals to firmly take root – even though they were tossed out by the Guru Granth – in the maryaada of gurdwara  sahibs.
When the Sikh Raj was established in 1801, the Sikhs were no longer hunted. But their gurdwaras continued to remain in the hands of the Mahants. 
Maharaaja Ranjit Singh placed his ministerial portfolio for the Sikh religion in the hands of his closest advisors, installed them as parbandhaks of the Akaal Takhat, and sanctioned their doling out huge sums of money and land to the mahants. Many historians believe some of his advisors also were on the payroll of the British who connived to destabilize the Sikh Raj. 
It is very likely that Divali-related deepmaala at Darbar Sahib and other leading Sikh gurdwaras became regular practice during this period. When the British annexed the Sikh Raj, these mahants were supported by the new rulers for politically expedient goals, and were actively allowed to carry on their sacrilegious activities. 
It was during the British Raj, in 1942, that the first akhand paat of the Bachittar Natak granth, dubiously called Dasam Granth, was conducted at none other than the Akaal Takhat itself. 
It wasn’t until the Singh Sabha Movement of the early 20th century that the historical gurdwaras were liberated and put under the control of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. These gurdwaras were physically liberated, but Sikhs are still trying to liberate themselves from the deviant practices and rituals that were rooted by their previous occupiers. 
At the same time, local gurdwaras continued to remain in the hands of individuals, and a host of deraas sprung up. These deraas are run by a new version of the mahants, known as sant-babas. A good number of local gurdwaras, including the diaspora gurdwaras, are staffed by granthees who are the products of dera philosophies and sant-baba influences. It is in this context that the introduction and continuation of Divali deepmaala and other Bhramanical rituals at Darbar Sahib and other gurdwaras is perhaps best understood.
Left and Right: Hindus celebrate Divali. Center: Divali extravaganza at Darbar Sahib.
Brahmanism dictated the classification of Hindu society into four main groups – Brahman, Khatri, Veshyas and Shudars. Dress, occupations, language and celebrations were allotted accordingly to allow for distinctions to be made at the outset. The Brahman thus celebrated Vaisakhi while the Khatris considered Dushera to be their main celebration. The Veshayas, because they were the bania or business class, were allotted Divali, which is a celebration of Laxmi, the godess of wealth. The Shudars, because they were the lowest in the pecking order of castes, were deemed satisfied to consider Holee, in which they gathered to chuck colored dust at each other in the name of guttural fun, as their main celebration.
Divali is the shortened name of Deepavali, meaning a festival of lamps. It is fixed on the moonless (masia) night of the month of Kathak – a month associated with labor, as opposed to Veskahi, which is associated with reaping of the benefits. By definition, Kathak masia falls at the end of the “working month.” The day after Divali is known as Vishkarma Divas, the day of no-labor, also the name of a devtha, and then Dhan Chaundas, the day of wealth, name of another devtha. Wealth will only arrive if the deity of wealth, Laxmi, arrives on Divali night, and the devotee is at home waiting for her. So prior to Divali, devotees clean their homes and give it a new coat of paint.
On Divali night, they light up their homes, light fireworks, and distribute sweets in anticipation of Laxmi’s arrival. The main door of the house is never closed on Divali night. Laxmi’s photo is adorned with silver and gold decorations and Kesar and Ganesh are drawn in full color on the walls and floors of the house. Many devotees gamble during Divali night hoping for wealth. Shiv ji and his consort, Parvati, are commonly depicted as gambling during Divali night. The Ramayan also narrates a gambling session between Ram and Sita on Divali night.
The civilization of India is 5,000 years old. A number of significant events coincided with Divali. The most significant event was the return of Prince Ram Chander to Ayothya after defeating his rival, King Ravan. This battle is depicted as the triumph of good over evil. Divali night has since witnessed fireworks and deepmaala in celebration of victory, and burning effigies of the defeated Ravan in jubilation.
It is fairly clear that Divali is a celebration that holds deep philosophical and historical significance to followers of the Hindu faith. And, it is equally clear that Divali has no significance whatsoever from the view point of Sikh history, philosophy, practice, Gurmat and Gurbani.
The similarity between the story of Guru Hargobind returning to Amritsar and that of the Hindu raaja, Ram Chander, returning to Ayothya to celebrate Divali is striking enough for the Bundhi Chhor Divas celebration to come across as an unimaginative, whole-scale plagiarism and dull fabrication. As is the case with most afterthoughts, it does not withstand careful scrutiny. It is shaky at best and sacrilegous at worst.
Sikhs, having lived in cosmopolitan Punjab from the days of Guru Nanak Sahib, would have undoubtedly shared the joy of Divali, and even Muslim celebrations such as Eid, with their neighbors and countrymen, without sharing the philosophical underpinnings of the event. The same can be said of Sikhs outside of Punjab and India who live in mixed societies that celebrate Christmas and Hanukah. It is thus likely that Divali had been accepted from the social and cultural perspective by the Sikhs – in the name of good inter-communal relations and ties.
As the world’s most visible minority, Sikhs have perhaps understood this principle better than others. There is nothing in Gurmat that prohibits Sikhs from sharing in the joys of their neighbors and countrymen. 
But attempts to provide Sikh historical and philosophical basis to Divali and other non-Sikh celebrations, and endeavors to bring these functions to gurdwaras are grossly misguided. Such endeavors lead to the distortion and manipulation of Gurbani by providing justification where none exists. 
The Sikh leadership has made a mockery of the rich Sikh tradition by implying a bankruptcy of indigenous Sikh celebrations. Such attempts falsify Sikh history and rob our younger generations of the chance to appreciate their own distinct identity. 
The spiritual esteem of the Darbar Sahib is undoubtedly affected amongst Sikhs over the misguided and wasteful actions of these gurdhaams to burn lamps and conduct fireworks on Divali night.
Above all, such actions lower the esteem of the Sikhs in the eye of our Guru, as indicated by Guru Gobind Singh: jab yeh gahae bipran kee Reet, mein na karoon en kee parteeth. Meaning: When they engage in the practices of the Brahmins, I will not recognize them.
The trust and faith that the Guru Sahib placed in Sikhs may simply be lost in so doing.

About the author: Karminder Singh Dhillon has a doctoral degree in international relations and is a regular contributor to The Sikh Bulletin and The Sikh. He is currently an administrative and diplomatic officer in the Malaysian civil service, and the Deputy Undersecretary at the Ministry of Defence. He has degrees from several universities, including Harvard University; the University of Nottingham, UK; the National Defence University, Beijing; and Boston University. This article was first published in 2010, and has been edited and republished for awareness of the Panth.

Commentaries are the opinions of the authors, and not necessarily that of Sikh Free Press.



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