Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of the Sikh religion, was born into a kshatriya (warrior clan) family, as were many of his first disciples. His successor, Guru Angad Dev Ji, encouraged followers to train the body physically, mentally and spiritually. It is said that after completing discourses in spiritual enlightenment, the Guru would ask his students to wrestle and partake in other physical activities.
Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji propagated the theory of the warrior saint and emphasised the need for his followers to practice fighting for self-defence. After the martyrdom of his father and fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev Ji , Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji took up arms in order to protect the future generation of Sikhs and to stand against tyranny and oppression. When fifty-two Rajput princes were captured by the Muslim conquerors, the Guru assembled an army to free them. This led to further exchanges in the martial cultures of the Sikhs and Rajputs. Both the Rajputs and Punjabis favoured the sword as their main weapon.
Although Sikhism was founded as a peace-loving religion it has never taken the pacifist approach. From the inception of the faith, its followers constantly had to fight to protect their communities and religion from the Mughal rulers. During the 17th century Emperor Aurangazeb started converting Kashmiri Brahmins into Islam in the hope that if they could be converted, the other Hindus will follow suit. The Kashmiri pandits decided to approach Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji who subsequently laid down his life in 1675 for this purpose. His son and successor was Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Guru of Sikhism and a master of Shastar Vidiya/Gatka. In 1699 he founded the Khalsa brotherhood by baptising five disciples with a sword dipped in the nectar of immortality (Amrit). This collective society galvanized the martial energies of the Sikh community and would later go on to form the Khalsa Army of the Sikh Empire during the first half of the 19th century.
The Khalsa’s aims were to fight oppression, assist the poor, worship the one God, abandon superstition, and defend the faith. This is symbolised by the Kirpan, one of the five Ks which every baptised Sikh is required to carry. In regards to training the brotherhood, Guru Gobind Singh pledged that he would “teach the sparrow to fight the hawk”.
During the later 17th century, the Sikhs were responsible for defending India’s north from foreign conquerors. Having repelled a number of Afghan invasions, they eventually went on to fill the power void left after the collapse of the Mughals.
Gatka has been a well practised martial art by followers of the Sikh faith for hundreds of years. It is said that even during the 1984 attack on the Sikh’s most holiest shrine the Golden Temple, Sikh warriors used the martial art to prevent the Indian army officials from desecrating the Golden Temple even further.