Maghi – Festival of the 40 Immortals – Sikhism

January 13


Over three hundred years ago the tenth and last (human) Guru of the Sikhs led his army in an historic battle against the Mughal Emperor.

But today’s holiday, Maghi Mela, actually honors the 40 followers who deserted the Guru before the fight.

At the Battle of Anandpur, Guru Gobind Singh’s men were besieged by the Mughal army. The Mughal Empire covered over 3 million square kilometers and had a population of over 120 million people.

Forty of the Guru’s men deserted him at Anandpur. Guru Gobind Singh had to retreat from Anandpur and most of his army was destroyed in the attack that followed.

When the 40 deserters returned home, their wives and families shunned them for desertion. Ashamed, the men–led by warrior woman Mai Bhago–decided to set back out to join their badly-outnumbered Guru, now in Khidrana Ki Dhab.

As the Mughal army approached Gobind Singh’s camp, they encountered the 40 former deserters. In the Battle of Muktsar all 40 warriors were killed, but the Mughal army met such heavy casualties they were forced to retreat.

Guru Gobind Singh

Guru Gobind Singh post-humously forgave the former deserters and granted them eternal Chali Mukte–liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth and all human suffering. The site became known as Muktsar, the “tank of salvation.”

The Guru died less than three years later, but outlived his nemesis, the Sultan Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb had beheaded Gobind Singh’s father, the previous Guru, 30 years earlier for refusing to convert to Islam.

Both Gobind Singh and Aurangzeb were the last of their kinds.

The Mughal Empire declined after Aurangzeb’s death. He had ruled for half a century and was considered the last great Mughal ruler. He was succeeded by Bahadur Shah I, who reached a brief alliance with the Gobind Singh before the Guru’s death.

Guru Gobind Singh meanwhile declared that he would be succeeded not by a person, but by the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, the writings of the ten Gurus of Sikhism. By taking the revolutionary step, Gobind Singh made the Guru immortal. Henceforth Sikhism could be guided by eternal principles instead of dependent on a mortal leader.

The site of the famous battle at Muktsar is now the centerpoint of Maghi Mela, the January 13 remembrance of the 40 Immortals.

Muktsar, site of the famous battle

In the 20th century the Sikh people have faced new, yet similar challenges. According to a 1994 study the Sikh people only make up less than 2% of the Indian population but account for 20% of the Indian Army’s officers, and 10-15% of all ranks.

Yet in 1984 a controversial Indian military operation, code-named Bluestar, killed the Sikh extremist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and hundreds of his followers, who had declared an independent Sikh state. In retaliation two of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. This in turn led to the Anti-Sikh Riots which killed 3,000 Sikhs in New Delhi alone.

In North America Sikhs have been mistaken for Muslims because of their tradition dress, turban, and beards, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Four days after 9/11 a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona (Balbir Singh Sodhi) was gunned down as he helped a landscaper plant flowers around his Chevron station. The racist murderer claimed to have killed Sodhi because of his turban “in retaliation” for the attacks.

Gobind Singh: the Penultimate Guru

January 5

The Guru known as Gobind Singh was the second to last of the 11 Gurus of the Sikh religion. The Guru is the leader and the most revered figure in Sikhism. Most Sikh holidays revolve around the births, martyrdoms, and life events of the Gurus.

Guru Gobind Singh became the leader of the Sikhs at the age of 9 in 1775 when his father, the ninth Guru, was beheaded by Mughal ruler Aurangzeb for refusing to convert to Islam.

Guru Gobind Singh
Guru Gobind Singh

Gobind Singh’s three-decade reign determined the present shape of Sikhism today. Four of the religion’s holidays are directly related to Gobind Singh’s life:

1666: His birthday – on or around January 5

1675: The Martyrdom of his father Guru Tegh Bahadur – on or around November 24

1699: Vaisakhi – the Sikh New Year, on or around April 13, which honors the Guru’s establishment of the Khalsa, or “Community of the Pure”

1705: Maghi – remembers the “40 Immortals” who sacrificed their lives at the Battle of Muktsar

But perhaps the Guru’s most miraculous achievement was in choosing and preparing his successor, Guru Granth Sahib.

Guru Granth Sahib became the 11th Guru in 1708 and is still the Sikh Guru today. Talk about a record for longevity!

Shortly before Gobind Singh’s death in 1708, he declared that he would be succeeded not by a person, but by the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, the writings of the ten Gurus of Sikhism. By taking the revolutionary step, Gobind Singh made the Guru immortal. Henceforth Sikhism could be guided by eternal principles instead of dependent on a mortal leader.

Sikhism is sometimes simplified as a cross between Hinduism and Islam, but is a unique philosophy. Sikhism rejects the Hindu caste system and idol worship. Unlike Islam, Sikhism does allow for images for adoration.

Sikhism has experienced conflicts with Islam ever since its inception in the mid-15th century. Sikhs have often sided with Hindus on political matters; Sikhism’s structure and culture has resulted in massive Sikh overrepresentation in the Indian armed forces. However in the late 20th century conflicts with Hindus increased as well.

Guru Gobind Singh died in October 1708, after a stab wound inflicted by a would-be assassin reopened while he was drawing a bow.

“The 12 months, the seasons, the dates, and all the days are blessed: each hour, minute, second, leads naturally to the True One.”

— Guru Granth Sahib


April 13 or 14

In the month of Vaisaakh, how can the bride be patient?  — Guru Granth Sahib p133, Sikh holy book

Vaisakhi has long been celebrated as the New Year by the cultures of Punjab in northwest India and eastern Pakistan. But for Sikhs, Vaisakhi is one of the most important holidays of the year.

Celebrated every year on April 13 or 14, for Sikhs Vaisakhi (also Baisakhi) commemorates the founding of the Khalsa Pantha (Order of the Pure) by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699.

Guru Gobind Singh, as you may recall, is the last of the ten mortal gurus. He’s worshiped for, among other things, upon his death handing over the title Guru not to a person, but to the Sikh holy book itself, Guru Granth Sahib, a collection of divinely inspired writings by the first ten Gurus.

But he is also known for transforming Sikhs into a family of holy warriors, or soldier saints, known as the Khalsa Pantha.

On this day in 1699, at the Vaisakhi Festival in Anandpur Sahib, Gobind Singh called together some of his most devoted followers outside his tent. In front of a crowd of thousands, he asked who was willing to give their life to Sikh cause. A man volunteered. Gobind Singh took him into the tent and reappeared moments later alone, blood dripping from his sword.

To the crowd’s astonishment Gobind Singh asked again who was willing to give their life. Another man volunteered. Gobind Singh led the man to his tent and again came out alone with his bloody sword. This happened three more times.

Gobind Singh founds the Khalsa, Vaisakhi 1699
Gobind Singh founds the Khalsa, Vaisakhi 1699

After the fifth time Gobind Singh returned to his tent and brought out the five men unharmed, with turbans around their heads. He baptized them with a sacred nectar of immortality called amrit and declared them the Panh Piara, the Five Beloved Ones. These were the first five of the Khalsa, the elite group of holy warriors who would ensure the survival of the Sikh religion over the next three centuries.

Even today, though Sikhs are a minority in India, they still traditionally hold a disproportional number of military posts as commanders and officers.

Vaisakh is the first month in the Nanakshahi calendar. It coincides with April and May. The Vaisakhi festival is celebrated with processions and parades throughout Punjab as well as in Sikh communities throughout the world. The largest Vaisakhi parade outside India is in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“The month of Vaisaakh is beautiful and pleasant, when the Saint causes me to meet the Lord.” — Guru Granth Sahib p134