‘We Have Made A Fatal Mistake Of Trapping Histories In Regions’

The voice of courage is the most compelling, powerful and gentle. Courage runs through the lives of Guru Gobind Singh, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo — three great men, who have given us the tradition of fearlessness, wisdom, consciousness, meaning and  values. Author Hindol Sengupta is at a crucial point in his exploration of their lives and towering courage. He is audaciously leaping across the strong currents of dissent, turning swiftly his momentum and focus to Sikh Gurus and Sikh history, throwing ripples on boundaries that confine and trap our histories, in a swim towards deeper self awareness. His latest book, The Sacred Sword, The Legend of Guru Gobind Singh, is historical fiction.

Tossed around by waves of his bold thoughts, Hindol is using his gushing expression to measure a vast sea of meanings in the ‘new world’. His laps in this sea are circular. Like the time cycle of ragas — Hindol’s, meant for the morning, of self awareness. Forty. He is not. He is racing. He is slow and steady. He has shown that being Hindu, dissent is not the only way, and that once we touch the core philosophy of Hinduism, we become more and more aware of the sacred, powerful, the poetic, fearless and spiritual.

He is audacious, not because he has chosen subjects and academic path that expose him to a flash of discouraging perceptions, but because he is able to hold the spear of “popularly known truths” (an expression from his evolved cultural vocabulary), against his powerful writing, ideas, work and books. He is audacious because he keeps walking on the path he has chosen, leaving behind a bloom of questions, answered and multiplying. He is audacious because his expression to dissent, anger and sadness is writing and creating. His dissent is fertile, even in anger, sadness and dissent. It is not barren, not dry. He is audacious because he approaches mysteries and triggers through words, not a desperate escape of offended silence. There is no such thing as honour: he tells us. There is the self: he tells us.

Hindol, well-known journalist and entrepreneur, selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum this year, is consistent, carelessly careful, patiently impatient in his style; he celebrates himself in a space that belongs to not an author of eight books, but of a thinker and doer, igniting minds with thoughts that have a force gentle and rumbling at the same time. Decades from now, readers, while passing on and recommending books to younger generations, would be able to say that that there is good writing on the meaning of Hinduism and Sikhism and Hindol Sengupta has contributed to that. He has readers who are listeners. He is making the discourse richer in a narrative fed and shaped by noise.

In an e-interaction, he tells Sumati Mehrishi about his growing interest in Sikh Gurus and history, his writing projects, the Festival Of India he recently co-hosted with Rishi Suri, editor at The Daily Milap, and the joy of wearing dhoti.


Are there aspects in the lives, actions and thoughts of Guru Gobind Singh, Swami Vivekanand and Sri Aurobindo that make them similar?

The lives of the three people you have mentioned build for us an argument for courage. These lives encourage us to try and understand what courage really means, how to define it, how to distill it, and how indeed to live it. They display the unique courage of challenging not only the status quo that they see around them, but also the status quo that they find within. Guru Gobind Singh’s decision to discontinue the tradition of the living guru and declare the Granth Sahib as the embodiment of the living guru was perhaps one of the boldest cultural and theological decisions in Indian history. That he had enough authority even on his dying bed to make such a lasting declaration shows the level of his temporal and spiritual power. Vivekananda, of course, is very critical of what he sees as mindless ritualism among Hindus. He is constantly urging Hindus to delve deeper into the philosophies of their faith and not be carried away by herd-like behaviour. Aurobindo gives us the full trajectory  — from a revolutionary willing to shed blood for freedom to becoming the master of our true self. There is courage in everything these men did and it is what runs through their life stories.

When and where did your interest in Sikh history begin?

I have been, for sometime, interested in the history of Indian heroes. And as a resident of New Delhi, intermittently for 20 years, Sikh history has been all around me. One of the triggers was seeing the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib that stands in Chandni Chowk at the site of the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur, most likely in 1675.



What led you into writing The Sacred Sword?

I became convinced that Guru Gobind Singh had one of the most gripping and fascinating lives in India history. Here is a boy who comes of age when he sees the severed head of his father, a boy who goes on to create his own cult of warriors in the Khalsa, who writes poetry but is one of the greatest archers ever, who writes poetry even when he is writing to his arch-enemy who has murdered his sons, and finally, ends his life by removing the very position he occupied. What an utterly fascinating story!

In The Sacred Sword, when his sons are killed, Guru Gobind Singh is asked if he would give up. He says that thousands of his sons are still alive. What gives him this fearlessness?

A deep sense of spirituality which went beyond any physical sense of fear. Also a sense of destiny. He is unafraid because he truly believes that he is supposed to go through whatever it takes to stand up for his people.

What did you learn about the enormous co-existence of suffering, pain, relationship with god, love and poetry in Sikh history, while researching for The Sacred Sword?

That pain and suffering occur only at one level, but the idea of God goes much deeper. At that point of stillness, there is no pain or suffering. I understood that courage comes from stillness.

“Can you save them?” Guru Gobind Singh is asked. He says, “No”. “What good is your god then?,” he is asked. In The Sacred Sword, he answers this question in many ways. Which one moves you the most?

That he is willing to meet Aurangzeb even after his sons are murdered in the name of fulfilling the destiny that the Almighty has set for him. He is doing it because he believes he is doing God’s work.

“What good is your god then?” Today, this question pops up in popular narrative. Sometimes ‘atheists’ ask Hindus the same question. What is its relevance to you?

If you told Vivekananda, there is no god, he would say: sure, there is no god. There is only you.

If you told Ramana Maharishi: What good is your god? He would say: if you remain silent, you will find the answer.

I am unafraid of this question because I am a Hindu. I think to be a Hindu is to be unafraid of the question: what or where is god? Because the Hindu’s answer to that question is: forget god; let us talk about you.

Even an atheist cannot deny that whether god is there or not, the questioner is certainly there. There is no doubt that the questioner exists, even if god does not. For a Hindu, that is enough. That gives a Hindu enough material to prove the point of the Hindu view to life — that you are god. To which Vivekananda would add the caveat: yes, you are, but you just do not know it yet.

Would the sword serve as a recurring motif to defending honour and self in today’s context?

There is no such thing as honour. There is only the self. The self, if understood, subsumes all notion of honour or dishonour. A true sense of self only understands dharma, that which must be conducted for the laws of the universe to work. A sword in the context of today (or any day) would be to fulfill dharma.

In The Sacred Sword, Bhai Dayala’s hands are tied, but they go to save his falling turban. What does the response to honour, in Sikh history, and its reinterpretation in historical fiction tell you?

It taught me what we failed to do for centuries after that. It is a stunning image of what we needed to do as a culture, and what we failed to do. It encapsulates our failure comprehensively.

How did seeing his father killed, then, his other dear ones killed, change Guru Gobind Singh?

It made him aware of his destiny and his duty. It awakened his soul. It made him a warrior and a poet, all at the same time.

Sikh history has a tradition of fearlessness. What about fearlessness have you discovered during your research for The Sacred Sword?

That all fearlessness, indeed the greatest fearlessness, is spiritual. It has to be spiritual. Without the divine, there is no courage.

Who is Aurangzeb — the man and the ruler?

A tyrant, a bully and a deeply conflicted man. In The Sacred Sword, I imagine Auranzeb as constantly plagued with the question of his legacy. He is not as visionary as Akbar, he has not built the Taj Mahal like Shah Jahan, he is not an intellectual like Dara Shikoh. So what is he? Who is he? This plagues him and drives him to unimaginable cruelty to expand the empire of the Mughals, so that he might be remembered as the emperor who took the empire to places it had never gone before. He is, in his eyes, a true Muslim, and therefore he is so perverted in proselytising and conversions. He fights a ruinous battle in the Deccan because he wants to rule the largest empire. Alas, for him, all that is not his legacy. His legacy is as a cruel, if austere, emperor.

Would you write on Baba Banda Bahadur?

Definitely on the cards, in fact the discussion has been about a Sikh trilogy: Guru Gobind Singh, Banda Bahadur and Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Is Sikh history underrepresented in our culture and cultural studies?

Certainly. Sikh history does not only belong to the Punjabis. Like Tagore does not only belong to the Bengalis. We have made a fatal mistake of trapping histories in regions. Guru Gobind Singh is an Indian hero. Every Indian needs to know about him.

Fearless was also a tradition in Maratha history. Would you like to explore it?

I have been studying Maratha history, but my clear contractual agreements with my agent prevents me from talking another more about this at this juncture. Let me just say that I find Maratha history incredibly exciting.

Do you think a discourse on culture should mark Sri Aurobindo’s birthday (August 15)?

Definitely. He was one of the greatest thinkers India has ever known.

What aspects and events would Sri Aurobindo see as India’s rebirth 70 years after independence?

A cultural revival based on scientific reason and an understanding of consciousness as the backdrop against which our lives play out. Aurobindo would have hated the superstition and bigotry that is sometimes passed off as religion in India. He had a lofty vision for the country based on the highest ideals of its great philosophies. He would have wanted every Indian to be taught those philosophies and those cultural ideas. He would have been pleased with the green shoots of a cultural revival in India, but would have been saddened to see how many Indians still do not have a scientific temper and think spirituality is a pantomime. Aurobindo wrote with the greatest detail about his own spiritual transformation and would have liked to see that in his fellow countrymen.

What should make us celebrate India and our culture against the backdrop of a constant internal “war of dreams”?

That it is so ancient, that it is so open, that it is so intellectual, that it is so illuminating, that it is so colourful. Our treasures can stop our wars.

How can India’s culture and people weaken this “war of dreams”?

By truly embracing the cultural roots of India across the country, and not just in specific regions. We need a national sense of culture, a national understanding of why we exist, and why India is special. This needs to be understood by every Indian.

You recently co-hosted Festival of India. What initiated it?

In 2011, I had curated and organised the India ArcLight Festival at the Alliance Francaise in New Delhi. This had brought together a range of art forms together under one roof — from classical music to theatre. Since then, I had been thinking of bringing together a platform that helps Indians access their own heritage and culture easily, simply and under one banner. You can think of this festival as an extension of my work in my books. When I mentioned this idea to Rishi Suri, the editor at The Daily Milap and himself a Chevening scholar and art aficionado, he was immediately excited. Rishi has been part of many cultural events and his family has a long history of engaging with the best and brightest of Indian culture. Together Rishi and I spent a lot of time researching what an ideal festival ought to look like. We both remembered the old Festivals of India that used to go around the world. We thought it would be great to call our event The Festival of India and make it a platform to the very best of Indian ideas. We were grateful that Shakti Sinha, director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, was immediately excited by our idea and decided to host it at the centre. This is how the festival happened.

What other aspects would you like to cover in Festival of India?

We are looking to push the arts content of the programme to include more classical music and dance.

Will Festival of India travel?

Absolutely. The idea is for The Festival of India to travel to different parts of India but also travel around the world. We are now looking for suitable partners.

The Festival of India is designed to create open spaces which are accessible to everyone. It is designed as a platform for free interaction. There will always be people who might be self-serving. The only way to tackle this problem is from the supply side. We know that there is a lot of demand. But the supply side is still quite thin. We need to fix the supply side and ensure many more voices and themes are heard, therefore, The Festival of India.

You believe that the Independence Day speech must travel. Should the speech move to our open spaces that celebrate Nature — in Kutch, the Vindhyas, the banks of Ganga and Brahmaputra, the last post in Rajasthan, the last post in Siachin, Uttarakhand, in the North East? 

Oh, there are so many places, including some that you have pointed out. I would say to start with we ought to have it travel to our biggest ‘sites’ of freedom including Dandi in Gujarat, at Travancore, where a young king Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma defeated the Dutch East India Company, next to the statue of Birsa Munda at Bokaro, one could go on and on.

Would you like to connect readers with fearlessness in Bengal history through a book?

There is a book on Indian revolutionaries, or the revolutionary history of India, which is on the cards. It involves a lot of research, and that has begun in bits and pieces.

Would you write a book on songs of freedom and patriotism from Bengal? 

I am planning to write a book on the Anandamath and Vande Mataram. Please expect it in the next couple of years. It is work in progress. Bankim Chandra needs to be rediscovered and I hope to start the process with Anandamath.

Tell us about the joy of wearing dhoti.

Why don’t more Indian men wear the dhoti? It was made for our body type. It was made for our climate. It is elegant and comfortable. I wear it all the time in India. A good dhoti made of fine cotton is the most wonderful thing to wear. It is whimsical and full of flourish. And yet it can be understated and sensible. It is also a wee bit risqué — I love that.

What are you reading?

The Theology of Culture by Paul Tillich, Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet by Harry Eyres and The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire by Neil Irwin.