Emperor Jahangir was uneasy. The supreme ruler of 17th century India, fearing the swift growth of the Sikh faith and its influence on his subjects, had tortured and killed their leader, Guru Arjan—and now his 11-year-old son, Hargobind—already an expert martial artist and charismatic figure—inherited his father’s mantle. The Emperor had reason to be nervous about the new Sikh guru.
Wearing two swords symbolizing miri and piri—the temporal and the spiritual worlds—Guru Hargobind learned a lesson from his father’s execution: never to take his people’s freedom to worship and practice their faith for granted. So one must arm oneself in the temporal world in order to continue one’s crucial work in the spiritual. Understanding his importance to his people, he gathered about himself a retinue of 52 guards. He then set about preparing the Sikhs for battles that he hoped he’d never need to fight. All the while, people continued to flock to the guru and take his message of moral empowerment and religious freedom to heart.
The story goes that Emperor Jahangir grew gravely ill and close to death. A conniving courtier convinced the emperor’s astrologers to declare that the only way for the stricken Jahangir to recover would be through the prayers of a holy man—but that the prayers must come from the depths of prison.
The plan worked—or appeared to. Guru Hargobind was summoned and summarily imprisoned in a fortress from which few ever departed—thus separating him from his people and apparently silencing his message of freedom and justice. But two things foiled the plot. There were 52 rajas (kings) also imprisoned in the fortress for daring to speak out against the emperor. Hargobind became their mentor, awakening hope that they might yet see daylight again.
The second unforeseen event was that the emperor miraculously recovered. He called for Guru Hargobind and informed him that he was free to return to his people. But the guru refused to leave without his new friends. The emperor, fearing rebellion if all 52 were freed, had an idea. He told Hargobind that he could take with him as many rajas as could hold onto his garment—knowing that the 52 desperate prisoners would fight among themselves for a handhold of cloth with only a few actually achieving their freedom.
But Hargobind outwitted the emperor. He ordered a special robe made, with 52 trailing hems so that all of the former kings could follow him to freedom.
And so with great fanfare, Guru Hargobind rejoined his people, arriving in triumph with all 52 rajas, just as the lights of the Hindu festival of Diwali lit up the sky. The guru earned a new name for himself—Bandi Chhor—liberator of the imprisoned—and Sikhs have celebrated the Hindu holy day of Diwali ever since as Bandi Chhor Divas—the day of freedom and liberation. And just as on that day Hindus celebrate the goddess of prosperity and good fortune, Sikhs reflect on the triumph of justice, and the sweetness of religious freedom.
As Sandeep Singh, director of the Sikh Academy for Gurmat Education in Oakland, New Jersey, writes, “While Bandi Chhor Divas is about remembering our past, it’s also about how we aim to live today. It reminds us to uphold the values of freedom, equality and compassion. It reminds us to stand up and speak out against all forms of injustice wherever they may occur.”
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