Baisakhi: Sikhs and Indians of the Punjab region celebrate first of Vaisakh

Group of Indian men and women in colorful garb and native instruments gathered together in a field of tall wheat or other grain

Baisakhi is, in part, a Punjabi harvest festival. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, APRIL 14: The grand Baisakhi festival sweeps across the Punjab region of India today, bringing lively processions and dancing, sacred baths, Sikh kirtans and expressions of gratitude for a good harvest. It is the first day of the month of Vaisakh, and the beginning of a new solar year.

For Hindus, Baisahki means Punjabi fairs, sacred rituals and a legend about the Goddess Ganga; for Sikhs, Vaisakhi is the anniversary of the organization of the esteemed Khalsa. (Tribune India reported on this year’s Baisakhi mela.) During the Baisakhi festival of 1699, Sikh Guru Gobind Singh Ji set the foundation for the Panth Khalsa—the Order of the Pure Ones. (Learn more at BaisakhiFestival.com.) Today, Sikhs visit a gurdwara (place of worship) with flowers and other offerings. The largest Sikh gatherings take place at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and at the gurdwara at Anandpur Sahib (the birthplace of the Khalsa).

Did you know? Spellings of the solar New Year festival vary widely, but generally, it is spelled “Vaisakhi” in specific dialects of Punjabi, and “Baisakhi” when referring to the Sikhs and the Khalsa anniversary.

While most Baisahki events take place around the Punjabi region, Sikh celebrations are carried out worldwide. (For an assortment of tasty Basaikhi recipes, visit BBC.co.uk.)  In New York, community service and food charity is practiced by Sikhs; in Los Angeles, a full-day kirtan (spiritual music) program is followed by a parade that contains an average of 15,000 participants. In British Columbia, a kirtan parade attracts tens of thousands annually (The Georgia Straight reported); in London, Sikhs gather for a kirtan and visits to the gurdwara.

Men in orange robes and turbans carry long wooden swords and walk in line in procession

A Vaisakhi procession in Southall, Great Britain. Photo courtesy of Geograph.org

BAISAKHI 1699

As Sikh’s recall their history this week, they will remember: In 1667 CE, the Mughal emperor installed himself as the emperor of India. Strict religious persecution followed, religious taxes gained momentum and temples and places of learning were closed. The Brahmins, eager to stop the emperor, approached Guru Tegh Bahadur (the ninth Sikh guru) for leadership in the conflict. At his son’s encouragement, the guru accepted the Brahmin invitation. (Wikipedia has details.) Guru Tegh Bahadur was later imprisoned and martyred for his fight against the emperor, yet when his body was left exposed, in the open, by the executioner, no one came forward to claim it.

Then, the Sikh narrative continues: In such dangerous and violent times, Guru Gobind Rai—son of Tegh Bahadur—wished to instill in the Sikhs a unique sense of identity and courage. During the Baisakhi festival, it was common for Sikhs to visit Anandpur for the guru’s blessings. Two months prior to Baisakhi 1699, the guru sent a message to Sikh followers: this year, Baisakhi would be different. (Get a Sikh perspective at Sikhism Guide.org.) With a massive crowd before him on that day, the guru declared that every great deed must be preceded by an equally great sacrifice—and, with that, he asked for a head. One man stepped forward from the crowd, ready to sacrifice himself, and the guru led him into a tent. Moments later, Gobind Singh emerged from the tent with a bloodied sword.

After four more men declared themselves for sacrifice, the guru emerged from the tent: the five men, all dressed in pure white, stepped out, too. The men were baptized, knighted as Singhs and called the Five Beloved Ones. They were deemed saint soldiers and the first members of a new community. The Sikh duty, it was proclaimed, was to dedicate life as a service to others and to pursue justice. The identity of the Khalsa embodies the five “Ks”: Kesh (unshorn hair); Kangha (the wooden comb); Karra (the iron or steel bracelet); Kirpan (the sword); and Kachera (the underwear).

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Vaisakhi, Baisakhi: Celebrating harvest, new year & Sikh revival

A Vaisakhi street festival in Canada. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A Vaisakhi street festival in Canada. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

SATURDAY, APRIL 13: Around the world Indian communities—especially Sikhs—are celebrating Vaisakhi (or Baisahki; spellings vary). It’s fun. It’s a source of pride and an occasion for colorful processions and public festivals. But explaining its exact meaning is difficult—because Vaisakhi holds many meanings to communities with origins in India.

First, this was an ancient agricultural festival in the Punjab, a time of prayers for bountiful crops. In the Punjab region (and among families with Punjabi roots around the world), one custom is an energetic dance called Bhangra. Centuries ago, while farmers were preparing to reap a harvest of wheat at this time of year, men would pause to perform this dance. The Bhangra has moved through several different eras and forms, according to scholars of Indian folklore. Today, there is a modern revival of the practice, complete with colorful costumes, that is often performed at Vaisakhi festivals.

A BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVE: VESAK

The festival’s name refers to a month in the traditional Hindu calendar: Vaisakha. Within Buddhism, given the faith’s roots in India, this seasonal period of celebration is related now to what is commonly called “Buddha’s Birthday.” Here is Wikipedia’s overview of the Buddhist Vesak—which actually occurs in May this year. Once again, Buddhist customs for Vesak vary across the many cultures in which Buddhism now is deeply rooted around the planet. Decisions by Buddhist leaders in the mid 20th century are among the factors unifying their Vesak celebration as a divergent festival from Vaisakhi.

A 17th CENTURY SIKH REVIVAL: Birth of the Khalsa

Though celebrated by many, Vaisakhi holds particular significance for Sikhs who, in 1699, established the Khalsa. On Vaisakhi Day in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh emerged from a tent before thousands, asking for five volunteers willing to give their lives. Armed with a sword, the Guru took in the first volunteer; a few minutes later, the Guru emerged from the tent again, his sword covered in blood. By the time five volunteers had come forward, the Guru revealed his true intentions: to call forth a “Beloved Five,” who would be baptized into a new order known as the Khalsa. The five volunteers exited from the tent—unharmed and wearing turbans. (Read more from the BBC.) From that day, Sikhism became a faith of soldier saints—always prepared to fight for justice by protecting the vulnerable.

SIKH VAISAKHI AROUND THE GLOBE

Service for the common good is a major theme at Vaisakhi. In this photo, two young Sikhs operate a tractor with an attached machine that crushes sugar cane to make fresh sweet juice. They are giving the fresh juice to celebrants as their act of service. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Service for the common good is a major theme at Vaisakhi. In this photo, two young Sikhs operate a tractor with an attached machine that crushes sugar cane to make fresh sweet juice. They are giving the fresh juice to celebrants as their act of service. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tens of thousands of Sikhs make pilgrimage to Pakistani holy sites each year for Vaisakhi—one city even bears the name of the first Sikh Guru, Nanak. Thousands more flock to the birthplace of the Khalsa, as well as to the famed Golden Temple at Amritsar. Sikhs in the United States can travel to Los Angeles, California, for an entire day of Kirtan (spiritual music based on the holy book, Guru Granth Sahib) and a large-scale parade; in Manhattan, New York City, Sikhs flood into the streets to perform seva (selfless service) of charity. Further north, Canadians in British Columbia parade through the streets for Vaisakhi, often drawing 200,000 attendees to the festivities. The UK boasts its own sizeable Sikh population, though most can be found in west London, and events there draw up to 75,000. The prime minister of Malaysia has announced that this year—for the first time—all government workers of Sikh affiliation will be given a day of on Vaisakhi Day.

Snatam Kaur: An American-Born Sikh Musician

Care to read more about America’s own famous Sikh musician, Snatam Kaur? This spring, she is touring across the U.S. Our new profile of Snatam Kaur tells her inspiring story of trying to promote peace through traditional meditative Sikh hymns.

NEWS on Vaisakhi 2013 and EcoSikh

In efforts to promote justice, Sikh organizations are voicing concern over Pakistani rejection of Hindu visas for Sikh occasions such as Vaisakhi. (Times of India reported.)

Meanwhile, Sikhs from Pakistan celebrated the recent Sikh environment day by planting trees and raising awareness of the importance of plant life. The event was organized by both the Pakistan Sikh Council and the Washington, D.C.-based group EcoSikh. (Read more here.)

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Categories: Faiths of India