Sikhism: The Panj Pyare, or the Five Beloved

The Panj Pyare, or the Five Beloved, are the men who, under the leadership of Gobind Singh (1666-1708), the last of the ten Sikh gurus, were initiated into the khalsa or the brotherhood of the Sikh faith. They have a revered place in the Sikh tradition; their story is also illustrative of the manner in which religious traditions develop, and how a religion comes to place emphasis on the narratological tropes of bravery, loyalty, fearlessness, risk, innovation, and so on. It is said that after Gobind Singh was anointed Guru of the Sikhs at the death of his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who refused to convert to Islam though it cost him his life, he became apprehensive of the future of the community. Sikhs who were keen on escaping the persecution of Islam relapsed into Hinduism, and Sikhs were afraid of openly declaring their faith. In an effort to revive the community, and instill in it the virtues of courage and fearlessness, Guru Gobind Singh hit upon a certain expedient to safeguard the interests of Sikhs.

At a gathering of the Sikh community, Guru Gobind Singh asked for five men who would be willing to lay down, at that very moment, their lives for him and the community. No one came forth immediately; thereupon, the Guru exhorted and harangued them, and asked what manner of men they were that they would not act in the larger interest. Finally, a man stepped forth. Gobind Singh took him to a nearby tent, and soon a thud was heard; then the Guru emerged from the tent, his sword dripping with blood. No one doubted that the man had been killed. Then the Guru asked for a second man, but this time, aware of the fate in store for each one of them, no one dared to volunteer himself. Again, the Guru exhorted them, and declared the end of the community in sight; and, finally, a volunteer came forth. He too was taken into the tent, and apparently dispatched into the martyr’s heaven in the same manner; and again the Guru emerged from the tent, his sword dripping with blood. In a similar manner, three other volunteers came forth; but when the Guru took the fifth into the tent, he came out of it with all the five men, and with five decapitated goats. These men, later immortalized in the Sikh faith as the Panj Pyare, or the Five Beloved, were then initiated into the khalsa, given the name of Singh (lion), and were henceforth enjoined to wear the symbols of the faith, abstain from alcohol and tobacco, and entrusted with the safekeeping of the community.

It seems to be of more than incidental interest to note that the numeral “five” appears to have a special place in the history of the Punjab and the Sikhs. Punjab, the traditional homeland of the Sikhs, is from the word panj, five, and undivided Punjab is the land of five rivers — Beas, Sutlej, Jhelum, Ravi, Chenab — which are the tributaries of the river Indus. Other than the Panj Pyare, the five symbols of the Sikh faith —kes (uncut hair), kangha (a comb), kara (a steel bangle), kirpan (a sword or knife) and kachcha (special breeches or undergarments) — also point to the importance of the magical number “five”. There are also five takhats (literally, ‘thrones’) or shrines of authority for Sikhs, mainly associated with the life of Guru Gobind Singh. Moreover, during the baptism of the Sikh child, which is presided over by five Sikh men known for their wisdom and devotion, the sanctified water (amrit) is placed on the head of the neophyte, and sprinkled in his eyes, five times, and five times he is given this amrit to drink. The amrit is itself prepared in an iron bowl where water and sugar crystals are stirred by a double-edged sword: all this is to the accompaniment of the recitation of five quatrains from the writings of Guru Gobind Singh. [For further details on the baptism of Sikh children, see Surinder Singh Johar, Handbook on Sikhism (Delhi: Vivek Publishing Co., 1977), pp. 105-29.]