(Dr. JS Neki & Giani Balwant Singh)
(from Concepts in Sikhism, ed. Dr. Jasbir S Mann and S. Surinder S Sodhi)
BHAGAUTI or Bhavani (Skt. Bhagavati, consort of Visnu, or the goddess Durga) has had in Sikh usage a chequered semantic history. In early Sikhism, especially in the compositions comprising the Guru Granth Sahib, the word means a bhakta or devotee of God. “So bhagauti jo bhagvantai janai; he alone is a true devotee who knoweth the Lord” (GG, 88). In Bhai Gurdas, bhagauti has been used as an equivalent of sword. “Nau bhagauti lohu gharaia—iron (a lowly metal) when properly wrought becomes a (powerful) sword”(Varan, XXV. 6) It is in the compositions of Guru Gobind Singh contained in the Dasam Granth that the term began to assume connotations of wider significance. Reference may here be made especially to three poems by Guru Gobind Singh—Chandi Chritra Ukti Bilas and Chandi Chritra both in Braj and Var Sri Bhagauti Ji Ki, popularly called Chandi di Var in Punjabi—describing the exploits of the Hindu goddess (Bhagavati) Chandi or Durga. Each of these compositions is a free translation of “Sapt Sati (lit. seven hundred), meaning the epic comprising 700 slokas, chapter xiv, sub-sections 81-94, of the classical Markandeya Purana which describes the battle between the goddess and demons whom she vanquished to reinstall Indra, the king of gods, on his throne. The heroic odes in fact are among many pieces of Pauranic (mythological) literature that Guru Gobind Singh translated or got translated for the avowed purpose of instilling martial spirit among his Sikhs.
The title of Var Sri Bhagauti Ji Ki, which has also been appropriated into Sikh ardas or supplicatory prayer, along with the first stanza runs as follows:
Ik onkar sri vahiguru ji ki fateh
God is one—To Him belongs the victory
Sri bhagauti ji sahe
May Sri Bhagauti Ji be always on our side
Var Sri Bhagauti Ji Ki Patshahi 10
The ode of Sri Bhagauti as sung by the Tenth Master.
The opening line of the Ode reads:
Pritham bhagauti simari kai gur nanak lain dhiai:
First call up Bhagauti in your mind, then meditate on Guru Nanak.
Here, the primacy accorded Sri Bhagauti Ji is obvious. This leads to the question why.
Bhagauti is, it appears, a multifaceted archetypal symbol employed by Guru Gobind Singh to fulfill a multiplicity of functions simultaneously. He perhaps wanted to complement the exclusive masculinity of the Divine image. Until then, God had in Sikhism as in other major traditions by and large a masculine connotation. He had been called Purakh implying masculinity. Although, at times, He had been addressed as mata (mother) as well as pita (father), almost all the names employed for him in Sikh Scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib—Ram, Govind, Hari, Shiv, Allah, etc.—were only masculine names. To widen the conception Guru Gobind Singh may have chosen Bhagauti, a name with a clear feminine implication. It is significant that in the entire Hindu pantheon the warrior Bhagavati, or Durga, is the only goddess without a male spouse, thus symbolizing female independence, strength and valour. This derives further support from Guru Gobind Singh’s autobiographical Bachitra Natak wherein he designated God by a composite name Mahakal-Kalika (Mahakal which is masculine is juxtaposed to Kalika which is feminine). More specifically, what is really meant by Bhagauti (or its synonym Bhavani) is made clear in the following verse of Guru Gobind Singh:
Soi bhavani nam kahai
Jin sagri eh srishti upai
The One who created this universe entire,
Came to be known as Bhavani -- Chaubis Autar
Notwithstanding the fact that names of the deities from many diverse sources occur in the Sikh text, here they mix naturally shedding, after acculturation in the new religious and theological environs, their original nuances and proclaiming one and one identity alone, i.e. God the Singular Being. All other meanings and shades are subsumed into One Indivisible entity. The names Hari (originally Visnu), Keshav (also an epithet of Visnu—one with long hair), Damodar (Krsna who had a rope tied around his belly), Murli Manohar (also Krsna, master of the melodious flute), Raghupati (Rama, the Lord of Raghu dynasty), etc., all came to signify in the Sikh vortex the unitary Godhead. The same applied to Bhagauti.
Says Guru Gobind Singh in the second stanza of this poem, Var Sri Bhagauti Ji Ki, the following about Bhagauti:
Taihi durga saji kai daita da nasu karaia:
It was you who created Durga to destroy the demons.
The line establishes beyond ambiguity the contextual meaning of bhagauti. Durga could not be presumed to have created Durga. She like all other gods and goddesses was indeed created by God Almighty.
The nomenclature seems to have been employed to smoothen the gender distinctions when referring to God.
The second archetypal significance of Bhagauti is linked to its other lexical meaning ‘sword’ as exemplified by Bhai Gurdas. Bhagauti where prefixed with the honorific sri (lid. fortunate, graceful) signifies the ‘Divine Sword’ –the Power that brings about the evolution and devolution of the Universe.
In this kaleidoscopic universe, its Creator is immanent not in any static way. He is in all times and at all places dynamically protecting the good and destroying the evil (Sant ubaran, dusht uparan). “Everywhere through the great perplexed universe, we can see the flashing of ‘His Sword’! . . . and that must mean His nature uttering itself in His Own Form of forces (Phillip Brooks). That Sri Bhagauti, the Divine Sword, symbolizes Divine Power is further borne out in the Ode itself when about Bhagauti it is said:
Khanda prithmai saji kai jin sabh sasaru upaia
Brahma bisan mahes saji kudrati da khelu rachai banaia
Sindh parbat medani binu thamma gagani rahaia
Creating first the Power of Destruction, who brought forth the whole universe,
Who raised the trinity of the gods, and spread the game of nature,
The Ocean, the mountains, the earth and the firmament without support who shaped. . .
The invocation to the Almighty through His image as the ‘Divine Sword’ as employed by Guru Gobind Singh purported again to instill the heroic spirit among his Sikhs, for:
Jeha sevai teho hovai
You become like the one you adore.(GG. 549)
Here a question arises: What is the special significance of remembering God with the name of a weapon? God is Pure Existence (sat), Absolute Essence (nam). Existence-Essence (sat-nam) is His primordial, archetypal, designation (GG, 1083). Whatsoever else is said to designate Him can only be symbolic. Though God is infinite, these symbols can only be finite. While the infinite includes the finite, it also transcends it. That is why every such symbol is not only affirmed by the symbolized but also negated at the same time. In the Sikh mystic lore, the prime symbol employed for God is the Word (nam). However, the other, even more structured symbol that Guru Gobind Singh introduced is the “the Sword’ (Bhagauti). One might here ask: can a fragment of the finite symbolize infinite? The answer can be given in the affirmative for God being Pure Existence is immanent in everything that exists. Hence symbolization of God through a finite symbol ‘Sword’ is not only possible, but also, in a sense, true because it serves to symbolize Divine Power. Every mystic symbol is bipolar. On the one end it is in contact with the Infinite, at the other in contact with the finite. That is how it succeeds in fulfilling the symbolic function. Bhagauti is one such symbol as it is in its symbolic meaning of Divine Power, in contact with the Infinite, and in its concrete form, as a weapon, in contact with the finite. Guru Gobind Singh has consecrated not only the sword, but in fact a whole spectrum of weaponry:
As kirpan khando kharag tupak tabar aru tir
Saif sarohi saihthi, yahai hamarai pir:
The sword, the sabre, the scimitar, the axe, the musket, the shaft.
The rapier, the dagger, the spear: these indeed are our saints.
Remembering God through such heroic symbols was the exclusive style of Guru Gobind Singh.
Already in gurbani, the theistic symbol of the Nigam (Vedic) tradition had been monotheized. Guru Gobind Singh chose to monotheize even the theistic symbols of the Agam (Brahmanic) tradition. Thus his was a process of the integration of the two great mystical traditions of India.
Finally, the word bhagauti stands for God or His devotee on the one hand (signifying piri), for the sword on the other (signifying miri). This integration of piri and miri in Bhagauti encapsulates another major dimension of Sikh thought.