What do you know of Bachitra Natak?
By Dr. Jodh Singh (Head, Encyclopedia of Sikhsim. Punjabi University, Patiala)
BACHITRA NATAK (bachitra = marvellous, wondrous + natak = drama, play) is the name given a complex of compositions, commonly attributed to Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Guru or prophet teacher of the Sikh faith, assembled in his book, the Dasam Granth: hence, the name dasam (tenth) granth (book), i.e. Book of the Tenth Master to distinguish it from the earlier work, the Adi (first, primary or original) Granth, now venerated as Sri Guru Granth Sahib. The most familiar section of compositions collectively called Bachitra Natak Granth is the Bachitra Natak itself, some of the others being Chandi Chritra Ukti Bilas, Chandi Chritra, Var Sri Bhagauti Ji Ki (or Chandi di Var), Gian Prabodh, and Chaubis Autar.
The composition of Bachitra Natak may have begun in 1688, at Paonta during the first spurt of Guru Gobind Singh’s literary activity. The date (Bk 1755/AD 1698) of completion of the section “Ramavatar,” as mentioned in that section, may also be that of the completion of the whole work. In any case, autobiographical Bachitra Natak must have been completed before 1699, when Guru Gobind Singh inaugurated the Khalsa Panth, for the text does not refer to the event. The poem, however, contains a detailed description of the battle of Bhangani which took place in 1688, which lays down the other end of the date, i.e. the work was completed after 1688.
The Bachitra Natak opens with an invocation to Bhagauti, i.e. sword embodying the divine principle of justice. In the second canto the poet says that limitless is the Divine Reality, fathomless its deeds. The poet then says that he would narrate his own story. The implication appears to be that the Divine has relevance for man only in its role in the human context. This seems to be the reason why the poet provides his story with a
long preface (cantos 25) giving its mythical, legendary, historical and genealogical antecedents which link the action in heaven to that on the earth. He traces the lineage of his house, the Sodhis, to Lava, the son of Rama, a scion of Raghu. The Sodhis were long in conflict with the descendants of Kusa (Lava’ s brother). Eventually when the latter, over thrown, immersed themselves in the Vedas (hence called Vedis/Bedis), the Sodhi king, in recognition of their profound learning, gave them his throne. The Bedi chief, in return, promised that the throne would be returned to the Sodhis during the Kali age. So after Guru Nanak, a Bedi, had shown the way, the leadership in the person of Guru Ram Das passed to the Sodhis. All the Gurus from Guru Nanak to the tenth and last successor, Guru Gobind Singh, embodied the light of Nanak. The poet recalls their names pausing particularly to reflect upon the martyrdom of the Ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, “who sacrificed his life to save the symbols of Hinduism, a deed unparalleled for heroism in the Kali age.”
In the sixth canto, beginning with the words ab mai apani katha bakhano (now I relate my own story), the narrative becomes more personal. The poet tells us how in a previous life he practised intense meditation and austerity on the mount Hem Kunt until his spirit merged with the Divine. Then, how despite his desire to stay absorbed in harmony at His feet, he was told by the Almighty to take birth in the Kali age to show the world the path of truth, to rid it of superstition, and to teach it to worship God alone.
Guru Gobind Singh accepted the charge humbly: “Thy word shall prevail in the world, with Thy support.” Without fear or malice, he would, he said, proclaim what God had told him. Lest people should start worshipping him instead of God, he warns them,
“Those who call me God shall into the pit of Hell be cast. I am but the slave of the Supreme Being come to watch the world spectacle.” Guru Gobind Singh adored none but God and attached no importance to any religious garb or practice except the constant remembrance of God’s Name.
Cantos 7 to 13 treat of the poet’s life as Gobind Rai, name by which Guru Gobind Singh was earlier known. (Gobind Singh was the name he assumed after he had himself admitted to the Khalsa Panth). Apparently, owing to the hostility of the neighbouring hill rajas, he moved to Paonta where he lived happily for some time. Then Fateh Shah (the Raja of Srinagar) attacked him “without provocation.” The rest of the autobiography is largely a description of the armed conflicts between the Guru and his adversaries. He defeated Fateh Shah, and his allies at Bhangani. At Nadaun he defeated Alif Khan, a Mughal commander sent to exact tribute from the hill chiefs. The Guru’s former enemy, Bhim Chand of Bilaspur, sought the Guru’s help in this action. Three expeditions sent by Dilawar Khan were also put to rout. The first, under Dilawar’s son, turned back merely upon hearing the tumult of assault by the Guru’s forces. The second and third, under strong commanders Hussain and Jujhar Singh, were distracted by other hill chiefs and ended in the death of these commanders. Guru Gobind Singh ends the story in canto 14 reaffirming his faith in God’s cosmic play. “All Time saveth His saints and punisheth those who renege on Him. He protecteth his saints from all harm …. He hath succoured me. His own slave.”
Bachitra Natak is a clear and strong statement of God’s, and Guru Gobind Singh’s role in history. That is what gives it central importance in the formation of Sikhism. Guru Gobind Singh confirmed the preceding Guru’s teaching centring on the oneness and perfection of the Absolute. Such oneness also implied the essential perfection of creation as part of the Absolute. But creation is perfect only in relation to the Creator not in itself.
To see it as self sufficient is to distort reality and convert its goodness into evil. If human life is believed to be a separate and complete affair in itself, selfishness prevails and human existence is perverted.
Men thus immersed in the world are eventually chastised by God as is illustrated in Guru Nanak’s treatment of Babar’s invasion of India. One very common way of being severed from the Divine is to attach meaning to the external forms of religion in
themselves rather than as means of attaining the Divine. Guru Gobind Singh conceived God as the embodiment of the fighting spirit. But as the evil is in man’s perspective, it must be remedied in human terms; the visible action in God’s war on evil must be performed by men of realization. The Guru’s proclamation of his gospel is but a readiness to fight in God’s name and when he goes to battle, he does God’s work. No wonder, he always wins. The Bachitra Natak is an exultation over God’s triumph acted out by noble souls on the world’s stage and an expression of faith in future victories. It is a confident call to saints to put on arms in continuation and transformation of earlier Sikhism.
Consequently, Bachitra Natak is largely a series of vivid battle scenes created with forceful imagination. Through a variety of generally quick and sinuous metres, apt descriptions and a profusion of appropriate similes and metaphors, mention of the entire paraphernalia of battle, diction reproducing its very sounds and sensations, and glimpses into the psychology of the Warriors, the poet captures the verve of battle and quickens the reader’s spirit. To reproduce an image, Mahant Kirpal Das rising in his stirrups and shouting Sat Sri Akaal smote Hayat Khan’s head with his wooden truncheon that his skull was crushed and “his brains, spilt forth as butter flowed from the Gopi’s pitchers broken by Krishna.”
1. Macauliffe, Max Arthur, The Sikh Religion. Oxford, 1909
2. Gopal Singh, Thus Spake the Tenth Master. Patiala, 1978
3. Ashta, Dharam Pal, The Poetry of the Dasam Granth. Delhi, 1959
4. Loehlin. C.H., The Granth of Guru Gobind Singh and the Khalsa Brotherhood, Lucknow, 1971
5. Jaggi, Ratan Singh, Dasam Granth Parichaya. Delhi, 1990
6. Randhir Singh, Bhai, Shabadarth Dasam Granth Sahib, vol. I. Patiala, 1973