A new current is swelling up in the world of Sikh martial arts. By administering a poisonous admixture of revisionist history and the romanticizing of the Sikh fighting man to young minds, certain individuals have formed themselves into pseudo-Nihang organizations in order to disseminate strange religious philosophies and ideologies differing grossly from the norm of mainstream Sikhism. Under the cloak of “gatka training”, these individuals continue to propagate a strange form of Shaivite or Shaktaist Hinduism. I recognize these ideas well. How has it been possible for them to achieve this?
This is a complex question, but at the most basic level, there is the doctrine that it’s not possible to comprehend Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji unless one also believes in and accepts Dasam Granth and Sarbloh Granth. They call their martial art “Shastra Vidya” or “Shaster Vidya”. Its origins are obscured by the mists of time, but never mind that. Anything their teachers tell them must be true, therefore it goes back 1200 years. Just what evidence do we have that what they are teaching is in fact the genuine “sword science” of ancient India despite the complete absence of any documentary evidence? Because I told you so! OK?
Never mind origins – we can agree to disagree, and in the spirit of brothers in the martial arts, let’s put those questions to one side for a moment and concentrate on the substance of the teaching. You know, that technique and methodology stuff – how you hold the gatka, how you move, how you strike, etc. Hold on, I think we have another problem here. The new protagonists for Nihang martial arts have ignored the most fundamental rule of geometry. The basis of the “Shaster Vidya” that they teach, is circular movement. Circular cutting strokes, circular movement and footwork, circular this and that. And yet, didn’t we all learn at school that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line? It’s possible to land several thrusts on the bodies of their senior teachers, and to avoid being hit for long enough to suppose that had the weapons been real and made of steel, their senior teachers would have been killed. Western fencing hits their method for six(te). They just cannot defend themselves against a skilled collegiate fencer. OK, let’s leave this one for now and suppose that they are training to use a funny sword so deadly none of us non-Nihangs has been allowed to see it, to this day. A sword with a squared-off point. Anything’s possible, right?
Never mind that – let’s just acknowledge that point-work will always defeat edge-work in an equal match with swords.
Let’s ask ourselves, is the Shaster Vidya as I’ve just described really the old Shaster Vidya used by Sikh warriors of the past and by Hindu kshatriya warriors before them? This is another very complex question. Without a doubt, some of it really is reminiscent of what ancient warriors would do. On the other hand, much of it is not. Let’s look at the gatka stick, as a training device. It is basically a stick fitted with a guard. The guard is designed to protect the hand and the fingers – without it you would suffer discomfort and pain when deflecting the opponent’s strike. The point of having it there is to show that you are only meant to grip this stick from one end.
Let me suggest something wild and wacky – it’s supposed to replicate a real sword, which you can only grip from one end and that has a guard. This is proved by the fact that the gatka method of fighting with a plain lathi involves capturing the extended end of the stick with the other hand, at the end of the down stroke, thereby presenting the other side of the body to the opponent, with the stick held principally in the other hand. To make myself clearer: you grab the stick in one hand. Swing it toward the opponent’s head. You miss, and the swinging end of the stick continues its down stroke, by virtue of the momentum. Your other hand is just below your hip, and catches the swinging end of the stick at the end of the moment. Then this hand rises up to the level of your shoulder at the same time as you change your stance so that the opposite leg becomes the forward leg (closest to the opponent). Get the picture? Hopefully, this has persuaded you that a gatka is a replica of a real steel sword and is practiced with instead of a real steel sword, and that a stick is something different, and a different method has to be used.
OK, now let’s take this logic just one small step further. You know what they say – one small step for a gatka man, one giant leap for gatka. The priority for a stick fighter is to hit the opponent hard. That’s because, just touching the opponent with a stick won’t cause a serious injury. And yet, the hand is unguarded by a hilt. Therefore, the gatka method emphasizes “high guards” (stationary points from which to launch an attack or defense stroke) with a stick – both to enable high power strokes using your whole body weight and to protect your hand from being hit.
On the other hand, with a gatka you can just hold the thing in front of your body. As long as your opponent is standing in front of you, he cannot hit and injure your hand. Hence, when doing partner sparring or any other type of training with a gatka, it is not legitimate to ignore weak touches or strokes that your opponent lands. That’s because, the gatka (as explained earlier) represents a real sword, and a real sword cuts a man even with very little force behind it. A cut, affected with very little force, can take your opponent out of the fight by either incapacitating him or mortally injuring him.
This is the main and only point of contention between the new gatka akharas and myself. We do not see reality in the same way. I cannot see any gross error in logic in the analysis I’ve described in the last couple of paragraphs. In Western fencing schools, there is no consideration of force whatsoever. As long as a touch activates the electric button at the tip of the foil or epee, the buzzer goes off and the light goes on. Once that happens, that’s it. The player who lands the touch scores, and the bout is over. The players step back into the start positions. That reflects the reality of the fact that if you succeed in sticking a spike into your opponent, their health is likely to be affected adversely, in a serious way. They will not be capable of simply ignoring it and carrying on fighting. I would like all gateau practitioners to acknowledge this – a sword is not a stick and cannot be trained with as if it were a stick that can only be held with one end. It has unique characteristics (a sharp blade and a sharp point) that cannot be ignored; otherwise you’re not acknowledging reality.
The gatka fantasists may, after reading up to this point, loudly proclaim that the edge of the sword is an important fighting tool that cannot be ignored any more than the point. Good. At least you’ve acknowledged that the point is of use in a fight. Now let’s discuss the blade. What is it, and what is it for?
Firstly, for our purposes there are two broad categories of Indian sword with an edge. The tulwar and the shamshir. Both are curved, but the main differences are that the shamshir has a very pronounced, extreme curve, and the tulwar usually has a disc pommel. The shamshir is for cutting; the tulwar is for clever use of both the point and the edge in a fight. The shamshir is a weapon brought to India by Muslim invaders and is a tool for spreading Islam. Let’s leave the vicious thing out of the equation. The point of having a curve in a tulwar or a kirpan is to enable you to perform “draw cuts”.
If I have a straight, sharp-edged blade, it is difficult to cut you if I swing it at you in, say, a horizontal arc, and neither of us moves back or forth. It’s not impossible to cut you this way – just difficult. That’s because the force is spread over the sharp edge of the blade, and I need a lot of force to achieve penetration. Now suppose that I take the same swing at you with a curved blade. A smaller portion of sharp steel touches your skin, and yet it has the same power as I had tried to employ with the straight blade. The concentration of force over a very small area results in penetration. This effect is repeated as the blade cuts its way in – the rest of the blade also meets your body at an angle. Again, a lot of force is being concentrated over a very small area. Therefore the net effect would be that you are cut cleanly, without my having to strain for brute force. Conclusion: curved blades are meant for cutting people.
Secondly – suppose I stand before you with a sharp-pointed spike, intent on running you through. Your natural instinct, if unarmed, is to grab the spike as I’m pointing it at you. This will give you good control – you can have two hands on it while I have only one, perhaps. You can effect a disarm and thwart my attack. Now suppose I have a sharp-pointed spike and I’m standing before you again, intent on running you through. This time the spike is curved, and has a mean appearance. This will impress upon you that the thing has a long, very sharp edge that could hurt you badly. It doesn’t matter if it’s sharp or not – you will not risk losing your fingers by trying to grab the blade. If it is indeed sharp and you decide to grab the blade in your hand, you will lose your fingers. Again, that’s because the blade is both curved and has a sharp edge. A curved sword that comes to a point is called a tapering sword. The idea behind this design is that if your opponent grabs the end of your blade, it takes very little force on your part to just pull it back and cut off his fingers while doing so. In fact, thanks to this design, you can do that even when your opponent has both hands on your sword, and you have only one.
Thirdly, the overall extent of curve in a traditional or modern Indian curved sword allows for cuts, but it also allows for thrusts. The Persian-derived shamshir cannot be used to thrust at the opponent – it curves too much. Take an Indian sword in your hand, and it will be possible to hold it and thrust it so that at the end of your thrust, the imaginary line between your thumb and the tip of the blade runs parallel to the ground.
Fourthly, traditional Indian warriors were trained horsemen. The only way to attack pedestrians from the back of a horse with a sword is to use cutting attacks. Otherwise, you will lose the blade in the enemy’s body, and be left unarmed. Sir Richard Burton has proved that to be true, in his treatise on the military saber exercise for infantry. Therefore the sword issued to a serious fighter had to be versatile enough to use on foot and from horseback. This accounts for the necessity of incorporating some sort of curve into the design of the Indian sword.
Fifthly, it is to be observed that steel swords cannot withstand a fencing match wherein both fighters are using cutting attacks. This fact is obscure to those who have only ever trained with a gatka. Steel is strong, but it’s also brittle. It has to be, otherwise the edge of the sword will not be sharp. Two excellent swords will degenerate into two pieces of blunt chipped metal when treated to the modern style of hack-and-bash gatka. Gatka’s defence to this is to use the guard in fifth – the hanging guard. This prevents the edge of your sword meeting your opponent’s edge, by presenting the flat of the blade to parry with instead. The wooden gatka folks, who have become accustomed to wielding a gatka so that it can strike the opponent at any angle, do not properly understand this.
With real steel swords, you don’t have that luxury because it’s only sharp in one direction – the direction the edge is pointing toward. Edge-direction-consciousness can only be achieved by training with a real steel sword. Have you ever done this? Please do so soon. I suggest you try taking the best sword you have (Indian, Japanese, wootz, damascene, I don’t care), and hacking away at your friend’s best steel sword – edge against edge. Don’t forget to use the sort of force you employ when practising gatka.
My conclusion is: if you want to hack-and-bash, buy an axe and train to use it. You have the completely wrong idea if you think the Indian curved sword with a hilt – whether tulwar or kirpan or whatever – is meant for cutting your opponent strongly with all your body weight behind it. It will turn into blunt iron in about two minutes, and then it will most likely just break, sending dangerous shards of sarbloh flying in every direction like glass. Probably, the best instrument for cutting your opponent with full body weight in the gatka method is the traditional Rajput khanda.
My apologies if anything I have written or said has caused offense or upset or distress. I know it has, in one instance, and I regret that deeply. My intention is solely to help people break away from the mental slave-grip held over them by old men with white beards and blue durmalla turbans, and to remember that we each have a brain. Don’t leave your brain on the mantle piece or on the toilet when somebody is trying to impress a fact about gatka or shaster vidya upon you.
By all means, be critical and apply your own logic and intelligence and insight to everything I have written. All I’m saying is: when someone tells you something about Shaster Vidya, don’t just accept that it’s the real thing because he or she “told you so”, and he or she learned it from “Baba X Singh Ji” from village Lakhanpal in Jullunder in the 1930s or whatever. Those few young people I have met, who are actively trying to promote a culture of Shaster Vidya, encourage me. I am disappointed by those of them that refuse to acknowledge that the old method of Shaster Vidya has been lost, and that we now have to look to sources outside Sikhs or outside Punjab to find the correct way to use the old weapons. Let’s be honest. If a man demonstrates the tiger form from Shaolin kung fu to you and then says that it’s all a part of “traditional Shaster Vidya”, he’s probably lying. That’s not to say that we should not incorporate kung fu or other arts into Shaster Vidya, it just means that wishful thinking should not blind us to the truth of what we are doing.
Here’s some truth for you: yes, I trained in Western fencing before studying gatka, and now I include Western-fencing techniques into my gatka. But I’m not the first to do so. I’ve been contacted by an old man who claims that there used to be gatka tournaments in Punjabi universities and colleges in the 1950s, at which Sikhs including he and Hindus and Muslims used to take part. He claims that it was different from the Nihangs’ way, and that it was essentially a form of Western fencing using gatka sticks and allowing moving around the opponent, using the epee full-body target area and allowing full-blade-length cuts as well as thrusts. Of course the fighters had a solid grounding in pentra as a basic drilling routine. Do your own research and make up your own mind.
Guru Gobind Singh’s Shasters
Finally, here is an image of some of Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s shasters. Note the “spike”. It’s a ferangi sword – a thrusting-only weapon that was adopted into Shaster Vidya even by the Tenth Master.
So, what is Shaster Vidya? The exoteric meaning of the term “vidya” is “science”. The esoteric meaning is not accessible to Sikhs. Basically, Vedic science is supposed to be practised by properly initiated people of the Hindu Brahmin and Kshatriya and Vaishya castes. These castes are supposed to be assisted by ancestral spirits, who linger around them because they desire shraddha – a sort of sacrifice so that they can eat. By guru-dikhsa obtained from a living guru and by conducting certain penances and puja, a properly qualified person is supposed to be able to be filled by an ishta devata of their choice, who takes possession of them in a “positive” way. Therefore, for instance, an astrologer who is consulted for auspicious dates and the like will worship Jyotir Vidya and will try to receive this ishta devata into his body so that he can see the chart with “her” eyes. The vidyas are supposed to be goddesses, and obtaining “borrowed” power by calling upon their help is a sort of shortcut so that one does not have to obtain the siddhi for oneself. This is a form of right-hand Tantrik – a practice forbidden to Sikhs by the Rehat Maryada. The mantra to beckon Shaster Vidya is: Aum Shaster Vidya Namah.
On a strictly personal note – everyone is free to do as they please, but I believe the best way to approach the blade to learn its secrets is as a lover, not as a teacher or demigod or whatever. It’s a more personal path that it free from some of the thorns that I have described in this article, and it’s more fulfilling. What’s more, it doesn’t require blind acceptance of possible falsehoods.