The Dawn: Apr 17, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Vesakhi: harvest of joy

Mushtaq Soofi 

Boundaries between the mythical and the historical, the religious and the secular are invariably blurred in the socio-cultural traditions of the subcontinental society. If you scratch the surface and dig a little deeper, the historical may turn out to be mythical and the mythical may come out having historical origins. For example, Indra, a historical personage, who marshalled the Aryan forces against the Dravidians of Harappa, was raised to the status of a god in a process of deification after the former’s ascendency. And Asuras, members of powerful Asura tribe who put up fierce resistance against the Aryans, were demonised after their capitulation and proclaimed evil spirits dispossessed of historical reality. History, to the chagrin of historians, is narrated in a mythopoeic fashion and mythology is touted as reality in the manner of historical writing. Scholars with discernable eye don’t hesitate to read history in mythology and mythology in history when it comes to South Asia.

The festival of Vesakhi is no exception. Month of Vesakh (mid-April to mid-May) in the subcontinental calendar marks the beginning of summer. Vesakhi is Punjab’s harvest festival if we go by the logic of history. But now almost seven decades after the Partition, Vesakhi festival has come to be firmly associated with the Sikhs due to lack of interaction between Pakistani Punjabis and Indian Hindus and Buddhists under the influence of ideology driven socio-cultural states’ narratives. It’s worth remembering that Vesakhi festival is not Punjab specific. It is celebrated across the different regions of the subcontinent such as Punjab, Bengal, Odessa, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu by diverse faith-based communities; Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs. This fact in itself is a proof of the secular nature of the festival because there is hardly anything religious that is celebrated alike by these communities which are most of the time at odds with one another at subconscious if not conscious level.

For the Sikhs it certainly carries a religious significance. The year 1699 proved a turning point in the torturous evolution of Sikh community.

Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and the last guru, summoned his followers to assemble at Anandpur Sahib where on the occasion of Vesakhi he formally laid the foundation of Khalsa or Panth Khalsa (The Order of the Pure) that proved the bedrock of the Sikh politico-religious development. It was a grand move inspired by faith and politics to assert the growing power of the newly emerged community that was locked in a bitter and bloody conflict with the laggard Mughal rulers who had almost lost the gains of inclusive state policy adopted by emperor Akbar in his efforts to create a polity that emphasised the acceptance and tolerance of plurality and diversity in India that had always been wrapped in multiple rings of faiths, castes, ethnicities and languages. The historic Vesakhi assembly had far-reaching political consequences for India in general and for Punjab in particular. Exactly one hundred years later in 1799, Ranjit Singh captured Lahore, the capital of Punjab, without firing a single shot. With his astute political policy and honed military strategy he built his kingdom spread over a huge area in a short span of time. It was a spectacular success for the perceived upstart Sikh community treated with disdain by the old but enfeebled nobility; local and foreign.

Vesakhi’s religious dimension even for the Sikhs is a product of historical incident as it per se has nothing to do with the basics of Sikh faith. Commemoration of the grand assembly of 1799 held on the occasion of Vesakhi created a halo around it.

The festival seems to have a secular nature with its roots buried deep in our ancient agrarian society.

The month of Vesakh follows the month of Chet/Chetar. Chet heralds the coming of spring that creates a stunning landscape all around with its flora. Colours and bird-songs are what meets the eye and greets the ear. It’s time of re-birth of what appeared wilted and emaciated under the grey shade of frosty sky of the preceding month. Chet has been aptly described by one of Punjab’s classical poets as fire; the fire in this context, being a metaphor, stands for the riot of colours that infuses body and mind with an enlivening glow. Chet is a delicately rich source of aesthetic pleasure the natural regeneration can offer.

And Vesakh that follows it exhilarates the popular mood with its promise of material offerings. The surfeit of fragrance does not make the people oblivious to the need to get up and harvest the dust gold wheat crop, the staple of Punjab. The harvest ensures the supply of one of the essential elements of food component for the whole year and also provides much needed cash flow to the cash-strapped peasants and farmers desperate to pay off their debt and get other things the money at their disposal can buy. Punjabi adage that ‘the imbeciles of the family that has its store full of grain appear wise’ highlights the socio-economic significance of the harvest.

Vesakhi is indeed a harvest of joy as much for the individual as it is for the collective. Can there be better ways than singing and dancing to express the sharable joy? Let the sound and movement create delightful reverberations across the land. Let the land be praised for the bounty it offers. Let not Nietzsche prove prophetic who declared: ‘Earth has a disease called man’.—

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