Over the last few days Sikhs have been celebrating the festival of Bandi Chhor, lierally the ‘release of captives’. Bandi Chhor coincides with the Hindu festival of Diwali and is linked to an incident in the reign of the Mughal Emperor Janghir who lived in the early 17th century.
By all accounts Janghir was both intolerant and cruel. Even before he became Emperor, he tried to seize the throne from his tolerant and popular father Akbar. Janghir, wary of those who might oppose his rule, arrested the sixth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Hargobind, and a number of others and imprisoned them in Gwalior Fort.
But even the worst of us likes to be liked, and as the festival of Diwali approached he ordered the release of Guru Hargobind. To his surprise, the Guru refused to leave unless all other political prisoners were released at the same time.
Janghir decided to compromise and said that anyone who could hold onto the Gurus clothes could also go with him. He thought that at the most, two or three of his fellow prisoners would be able to go with the Guru through the fort’s narrow passage to freedom. In the event the Guru walked to freedom followed by all the 52 political prisoners holding onto tassels of varying length that had been sewn onto the Guru’s cloak. He reached Amritsar just as people were celebrating Diwali which Sikhs, like Hindus now celebrate with lights and fireworks.
The story reminds Sikhs to put the wellbeing of others before our own; in this case the freedom and human rights of the Guru’s fellow captives. This concern for others is echoed in another story of a Sikh water carrier who was dragged before the 10th Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, accused of supplying water to enemy wounded. The Guru asked him what he had to say for himself, and water carrier replied that he saw neither enemy nor friend but suffering fellow beings. The Guru applauded his reply and gave him ointment and bandages to further his humanitarian work; work that we see today in the activities of many religious and secular humanitarian organisations, who often in great danger to their own lives, work to help others. Bandi Chhor is a useful reminder to the rest of us to make concern for others part of our daily lives.