The Kirpan is a sword, one of the five articles or articles of the Sikh faith. The other four being Kesh (unshorn hair), Kanga (comb), Kara (iron bracelet), and Kachhera (drawers). When a Sikh is baptized, it is enjoined upon him not to part with any of these.
Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru of the Sikh faith wished to restore the power and dignity of the common man. He introduced as a measure of empowerment the five K’s for Sikhs. Though none of the above five articles were invented by Guru Gobind Singh as they were already in common use in India and had been used separately with the same significance.
The word Kirpan was used for a long sword even before it became an article of faith for the Sikhs. In the old Sanskrit dictionaries Amarkosh and the Shabdkapladrumkosh it is used interchangeably for Kharag, Karwar, Asi, Chandrahas, Bhagauti, and Rishti.
Guru Gobind Singh did not specify the size of the Kirpan and left it to the wielding power of the Sikhs. From the Kirpans restored at the Akal Takht and the other Gurdwaras, we can get an idea of what the Kirpan or Kharag is.
Why did the Guru anoint the sword as “Kirpan“?
We reckon because it alliterates with the names of the four other symbols and can be applied to all kinds of swords and also has religious art or aesthetics. Additionally, the Guru wanted it to be an item of utility by way of performance in defense and offense and not become a dead weight on the religion. The Kirpan is therefore an active symbol and not just a charm to be tied away with the turban ends or stowed away on Kanga (comb) as it had we observed such an emergent trend during the period of British rule. It was to be kept in a sheath and worn by the belt.
The martyrdom (by execution) of the 5th Nanak, Guru Arjan Dev, had been very cruel and torturous. This experience left an indelible mark upon the Sikh psyche, and the peace-loving followers of Nanak, who were now willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of righteousness.
Guru Hargobind thus championed the practice of carrying a sword and wore two swords called the Miri (Shakti) and Piri (Bhakti). These swords were not to be used to strike in a spirit of anger, hatred, or aggression or for self-glorification but were tools to shelter the weak or oppressed. An exercise in upholding truth and righteousness.
Interestingly, the very peace-loving Guru Teg Bahadur (9th Guru) too was a great warrior like his father (Guru Hargobind) and could wield the sword with great valor.
But before the sword Kirpan could become an integral part of Sikh many more hardships were yet to be faced. After the end of the Sikh empire, the free wielding and religious liberty of wearing a Kirpan was curtailed by the English generals. The first instance was when the Sikhs in the English army were forced to surrender their Kirpans at the feet of Sir Guilbert Walter. The Sikhs founded Sabhas and Diwans who struggled hard and long to get these baptismal vows back for them even when the law of the country stood in their way.
One of the first arrests was of Baba Nihal Singh Nihang for wearing a Kirpan. Thereafter many strong agitations were started by Ramgarhia Sabha, Chief Khalsa Diwan, and influential Sikhs of Rawalpindi who moved the Takhts, and motivated the general Sikh public to become part of this movement against the ban of Kirpans. The movement proved fruitful and on the 25th of June, 1914 the possession and donning of the Kirpan was allowed by law in Punjab and a month later in Delhi. By 19th May 1917 Sikhs were now free to wear it across the nation and by 1918 this exemption was extended to British Baluchistan, Residency Bazaars, and the Hyderabad States.
Since the size of the Kirpan was not fixed, manufacturing and wearing were freely enjoyed by the Sikhs till the time , protests for the Gurdwara Reform Act started. This lead to Sikhs getting arrested once again but this time on the pretext of wearing Kirpans that exceeded the size of 9 inches and above. This resulted in an order being issued by the DC of Jalandhar in 1921 banning 9 Inches and above Kirpans. In March 1922 the Government of India and the SGPC came to an understanding that the government will no longer interfere with the Sikhs wearing the Kirpans for purely religious purposes and will wear them in a sheath by the side.
This wearing ‘by the side’ meant, wearing in a (Gatra) cloth belt worn diagonally to hold the Kirpan. The Sikhs strongly objected to this phrase that later this might be used against them. Not before the ink had dried on this agreement an arrest was made of a young Sikh boy who was running to school to avoid getting late and the Kirpan he was wearing by the side was obstructing his run as such he held the Kirpan in his hand and ran. This was seen by the commissioner of the division who demanded the boy should surrender the Kirpan because he was not wearing it by his side and was holding it in his hand. The brave Sikh boy was willing to be arrested rather than concede his Kirpan because he felt nothing wrong with it.
There are examples of other cases in which Sikhs were arrested for either cleaning their Kirpan, because he was not wearing it on the side or while sleeping when it had been kept at their bedside, and even simply leaning on it. One Sikh was also detained for carrying two Kirpans because he had gone to purchase one for a family member. Misconstruing of law and prosecution for carrying the Kirpan was so manifestly illegal that all the disinterested newspapers and associations in India strongly disapproved of the policy of the government. A session judge too issued an order to this effect that wearing a Kirpan was not an offense.
Although the journey of the Kirpan has been very rough it continues to be revered to the utmost. To embolden the idea of its importance we must note that Gurdwaras and all Sikh religious ceremonies have the Kirpan tucked in the sacred Karah Prasad (pudding) for acceptance before its distribution to the Sangat (holy congregation).
In an article “Rationale of the Five K’S” by late Prof. Kulraj Singh published in the Sikh Review several years ago, he reasoned how the Five K’s are an indispensable part of the discipline of the order of the Khalsa.
About the Kirpan he writes “The Kirpan (both small of large curved sword) is symbolic of three things, cutting of avidya or nescience, to separate the transient individual self from the immortal universal self, preference for open combat as against secret attack for which straight pointed blade is employed ( this stands for high ethical principles of straightforwardness) and declaration of sovereignty over oneself, which non-acceptance of restriction on wearing of arms implies. Such an assertion of sovereignty over oneself may be symbolically done by wearing a small Kirpan. For, after all, its wearing constitutes a discipline for its wearer and a reminder to him of certain philosophical concepts”.