Sikhs are often described as a martial race. Two things wrong with that. First, Sikhism is a religion open to all, and one of its basic teachings is that we all belong to the same, one human race. Nor are we particularly martial, and our Guru’s teaching on responding to personal affront is, (I hope metaphorically), ‘to kiss the feet of those who would do you harm’.
At the same time Sikhs are duty bound to stand up to injustice against the weak and vulnerable and if necessary and as a last resort, by the force of arms. Unfortunately, in a short history of constant persecution, we’ve had plenty of practice.
I was reminded of this last Friday when I attended an impressive function at the Royal Military College Sandhurst to commemorate Saraghari Day. On September 12th, 1897, 21 brave Sikhs holed up in a small brick and mud fort at Saraghari on the North West Frontier of India, held back an army of some 10,000 marauding and pillaging tribesmen, for nearly a day to give valuable time for their colleagues to regroup. Eventually they were all killed, but the thought of surrender never entered their minds. Their courage received a rare standing ovation in the British parliament and their achievement has been recognised by UNESCO as one of eight most inspiring stories of collective bravery in human history.
I saw more modern examples of uplifting courage in a visit to the Invictus Games, the brain child of Prince Harry. In the Games, wounded soldiers show how despite appalling injuries, they can still laugh, joke and compete in athletic activities. The Games, take their name from Henley’s poem Invictus, which reminds us that however difficult or unfair life may appear, we should never give up. It ends with the immortal lines:
It matter not how straight the gate; how charged with punishment the scroll, I am the master of my fate; the captain of my soul.
I saw limbless blade runners, one with severe burns to his face, and others racing in wheelchairs enthusiastically embracing life. They and the brave soldiers of Saragarhi remind us of the importance of courage and commitment. Courage that refuses to accept the bludgeoning’s of chance, and helps put all our petty aches and pains, and grumblings about the unfairness of life, into true perspective.