This is the tale of Bandi Chhor Divas – the day of liberation, celebrated by Sikhs all over the globe.
The year was c.1617 and the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind Ji was living in Amritsar. Mughal Emperor Jahangir, based in Agra, ruled over the whole of India and Chandu Shah, a rich banker, had much influence within the Emperor’s court. Chandu Shah had played a key role in organising the martyrdom of Guru Hargobind’s father, Guru Arjan Dev Ji in 1606 and he now saw Guru Hargobind as the next threat to the Mughal rule. However, much to his dismay, Jahangir had taken a liking to Guru Hargobind Ji.
The Guru had previously saved Jahangir’s life by rescuing him from a tiger during a hunting expedition. Upon engaging in discussions, the Emperor had also been thoroughly impressed with the Guru’s mindset and demeanour; when he asked the Guru which religion was better, Hinduism or Islam, the Guru quoted lines from Kabir proclaiming that the One Lord is within both Hindus and Muslims, they are equal.
Chandu Shah felt threatened by this blossoming alliance and sought to put an end to it. So when Jahangir fell seriously ill, Chandu Shah advised the Emperor that the only way to cure his illness would be if a holy saint travelled to Gwalior Fort and offered prayers for the Emperor’s recovery. Ideally, he noted, that holy saint would be Guru Hargobind Ji.
And so Jahangir requested Guru Ji to travel to the Fort, south of Agra in Madhya Pradesh, and the Guru agreed. While Chandu Shah had initially said that the Fort was a sanctuary of sorts, it turned out to be a prison and the Guru upon arriving was immediately locked up inside. But rather than resisting imprisonment and ordering his Khalsa army to break him free, Guru Ji took the imprisonment as Waheguru’s (God’s) will and calmly remained within the fortress.
Whilst inside, Guru Ji meditated and recited prayers with 52 Hindu princes who had also been unlawfully imprisoned and the Guru became revered amongst them. Meanwhile, the Sikhs were yearning for their Guru and so every month they’d trek from Amritsar to Gwalior Fort, a 747km walk which took approximately 151 hours to complete, chanting and praying all the while as they came and circled the Fort and then walked 747km back. Hari Dass, the governor of the fort, and a Sikh of the Guru, revealed to the Guru that Chandu Shah had written to him requesting that he poison and kill the Guru, a request which he firmly rejected.
Finally, after two long years, the Emperor’s health was restored. A Sufi saint named Mian Mir journeyed to Agra and advised Jahangir to now remove the Guru from his jail; he has committed no atrocities against you, it’s unjust to keep the Guru behind bars without proper cause. Jahangir agreed and ordered Wazir Khan to release the Guru. But upon telling him that he was free to go, the Guru refused and told Wazir Khan that he would not agree to be released until the other unlawfully imprisoned Hindu princes in Jahangir’s jail were set free too.
Wazir Khan told Jahangir of the Guru’s request, reminding the Emperor that he already owed his life to Guru Hargobind after he’d been saved from the tiger attack. So Jahangir agreed to the Guru’s request, but on one condition. The Guru could only take with him the number of prisoners who could hold onto his thin cloak and pass through the narrow prison doorway alongside him. Jahangir was convinced that this would only result in the release of one or two princes alongside the Guru, but he’d underestimated the mind of the sixth Guru.
Guru Ji arranged for 52 tassels to be sewn on to his cloak, handing one to each of the princes who were in the jail with him. They all grabbed on to one and walked out of the jail with the Guru, 26 on his left side, 26 on his right side. Jahangir was astounded by the Guru’s genius and had no choice but to accept the release of the 52 princes.
Upon returning to the holy city of Amritsar on what happened to be the day of the Hindu festival of Diwali, Guru Ji was greeted by the lighting of candles by his Sikhs, symbolising the return of their light, their Guru, back into their lives as well as being a visual representation of the fire in the bellies of all Sikhs to attain basic human rights for everyone, regardless of creed or colour.
It’s about more than just fireworks, candles and good food, the story of Bandi Chhor Divas has a much deeper meaning to it. How many imprisoned people in this day and age would only agree to their own freedom in exchange for the freedom of a bunch of people they barely know? I think we can all agree, not many would demand such terms.
Bandi Chhor Divas is a day to think of the bigger picture, of the wider community, that it’s not all just about us as individuals, instead we should all be fighting for the rights and freedom of those around us too. Because none of us are truly free until we’re all free. Right? We should all be working together to promote positive change and use our privilege for good, beyond just benefitting ourselves.
Don’t just light a candle, be a candle, be a shining light in this dark age of kaljug that we’re currently in. I for one am currently sitting here thinking, what am I actually doing to help my community? The short answer is: not a lot. But that needs to change!
The festivities of the Sikhs in honour of the sixth Guru also coincide with the Hindus’ celebration of good triumphing over evil on the day of Diwali. And so while the two celebrations of Bandi Chhor Divas and Diwali may be separate and unique to each faith, they’re also very much intertwined.
Happy Bandi Chhor Divas and Happy Diwali to all. 😊