20 May 2008

Punjabi Not By Nature

“That’s krarrat! We’re like that by nature!”

Some people are totally incorrigible, entirely beyond the light of reason, closed to all logical analysis.

One such person is my very good friend S.K.

Well, not exactly. This I not to say that he’s fully this sort of an obnoxious person- no, he is in fact quite a good chap with many of the uncommon virtues and few of the common vices. He is reasonable, sensible, sound and, in general, a pleasure to talk to. No, he rally cannot be put down as that sort of a blockhead who’s not ready to listen to another’s point of view

Yet, that is exactly what I found him to be on that fine morning when I chanced to ask him why the Punjabis are the way they are.

What a discussion it was!

Wait! Did I just say discussion? Oh no! It was more of a monologue- and a dramatic one at that!

For three quarters of an hour he declaimed upon the subject. For three quarters he talked with the air of a pro, a master who has been asked to elaborate his/her pet subject. From dish to dress, from dance to dread, for three whole quarters did he expound the virtue of all things popular and Punjabi.

Yet, my question remained unanswered.

For what I got was a lecture on not why but what. Though interesting and insightful, it was nevertheless beside the point.

So later on I started thinking about it myself. What was-is-it that makes the Punjabi community and the Punjabi culture so uniquely distinct? It’s not as if other Indian communities are lacking in their unique divine sparks, but still, why is the Punjabi culture so popular not just here in Delhi which is close to the state itself but all over this conglomeration of different cultures and communities called India? More importantly, what are the socio-politico-historical reasons which make the community what it is?


Unlike popular conceptions of the same, the history of Punjab, instead of beginning with the Sikhs, is the oldest, and perhaps the most colourful, in all of the distinct cultural provinces of the subcontinent.

Few today know that the Rig Veda, the first, and perhaps the most important, of the four Vedas, was written in Punjab. Historians have ascertained that Vedic society was tribal in nature, with each tribe or ‘Jana’ being led by a Rajan. Inter-tribal warfare being constant in this familiar scenario of multiple principalities struggling for existence as well as striving for one greater and glorious (the definition of these two being subjective) than their neighbours, a "philosophy of heroism” emerged in the land. Characteristic attributes like ‘manliness’, ‘heroism’, ‘bravery’ and ‘courage’ were re-defined in light of this philosophy which stressed upon the absolute need of fulfilling all of one’s duties and responsibilities. Action was given marked importance over thought; the fulfilment of one’s “karma”, the proving of one’s “paurush” (manliness) in the battlefield of life- these came to shape up the notions of one’s “dharma” (duty) in life.

In his work the Ashthadhyayi, Panini tells his readers that the people of Greater Punjab lived prominently by the ‘profession of arms’, further informing them that the same was made up of "Ayudhajivin Samghas" or "Republics (oligarchies) that live by force of arms". Commenting upon Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Dr Arthur Coke Burnell too remarks that the Punjabi tribes discussed by him were indeed “the most…warlike of the Indian nations of the days”. This very ‘warlike’ attribute of the Punjabis is attested by almost all those who invaded the subcontinent, be the Cyprus and Darius I, the Achaemenid rulers of Persia or Alexander, the greatest conqueror known to antiquity, for Punjab has always been a sort of a ‘dehliz’ or ‘darwaza’ for anybody wishing to enter the Indian subcontinent from either over the Hindukush or along the Arabian Sea coast and almost all those who have invaded into the same have first come into and conquered Punjab and from there spread out into the subcontinent.

The collapse of the Mauryan Empire once again saw Punjab fall prey to invaders till it became a sort of a continuum, for right through the first millennium C.E. one sees a series of invasions by different peoples from different parts of the world. This reached its climax in the twelfth century when the second invasion of Muhammad Ghori heralded the coming of a new order in the subcontinent. These invasions, however, did not stop with the formation of the Delhi Sultanate, for the same was for over two long centuries sore beset by the Mongolians who came in from time to time and inspired such fear that successive Sultans quaked in their sandals at as much as even a mention of their name. Later on, more incursions from Central Asia and Persia, like those of Babur and Nadir Shah, invasion wrecked the province.


One of the most remarkable characteristic of the Punjabi is his/her openness. While the term in itself is to a very high degree ambiguous and subjective, a generalised definition of the same may be made as a readiness to mingle and/or to accept as well as a certain frankness and (comparative) unreservedness of manner. In this very few will find him/her to be lacking, for the class is notoriously famous for its extravagant hospitality, so much so that it often exceeds the limits of decency into sheer vulgarity (both of these, of course, being subjective). This ‘openness’ is also apparent in their speech and their dance, more so in the latter for a popularised version of the same-the ‘bhangra’-has been widely accepted as the easiest medium of expressing delight and joy- indeed, nobody today breaks off into the Kuchipudi or the Oriya when some sudden blast of unexpected joy hits her/him.

Even as s/he is well known for her/his (comparative) ability to welcome outsiders in her/his fold, s/he is also famed for her/his capability to speedily adjust in new, altered scenarios- indeed, the community is perhaps the most flexible and most open-to-change amongst all the great many cultural entities in the subcontinent.

Nevertheless, even though the Punjabi mingles, s/he seldom, if ever, forgets her/his roots for Nature has instilled in her/him a slightly inordinate amount of pride in her/his culture and s/he is vigorous to an extremity in promoting and protecting the same. Since antiquity the Punjabis have given outsiders their first glimpse of India and its culture and even now it is through them and through their agencies-for they have spread out all over the world just like the stalwarts of yore who would spread out into the subcontinent-that others see this land: so much so that the Punjabi culture is often mistaken for an entire Indian culture and not as just a tiny part of it.

Furthermore, of all the distinct cultural communities in the subcontinent, only the Punjabis are well known for their readiness for action, for their high spirits and for their determination to make it to their chosen goal by hook or crook. Time and again has the community proven its mettle in face of seemingly insurmountable adversities- it has, as is apparent from the above discussion, an illustrious history of doing so.


It will not be too difficult now to link the above two discussions, to find the connections between them and to complete the chain of reasoning.

The Punjabis, by the very virtue of their geographical position on the north-western and western frontier of the subcontinent, have been, as has been said, the first Indian community to time and again come face to face with foreigners. Indeed, the undeniable historical fact of these series of invasions seems to be the defining and determining factor behind much of the Punjabi culture, for it does seem that the long millenniums of incursions into the Indian mainland had accustomed the Punjabis to the same…

Cultural absorption and assimilation-those two things of which we Indians are so proud-must have occurred first in Punjab. For though it never completely dies out, resistance to the foreign other-the “mleecha” (barbaric)-does wear off over the years as different races with different cultural backgrounds mingle, never mind that political necessity and not altruistic notions of a homogeneous world compel them to do so.

Moreover, the presence of foreign culture that threatened the existence of their very own can be seen as another instance of cause and effect, for the Punjabi’s inherent pride in her/his culture and her/his ever-readiness in promoting the same in different surroundings seems to be naught but the end result of an old fear of cultural extermination by that of the foreign other in power.

Furthermore, the pressing and grim reality of war explains the supreme importance of action in this community as well as the ideologies which support the same. Not only that, they also provide formative reasons for umpteen notions prevalent-like those of ‘manliness’-in the community. The “philosophy of heroism” discussed above is a natural consequence of violence in a land sore beset by not just internal but also external exigencies. As Marx pointed out, every society needs ideas and belief systems to inspire the populace to do the ruling class’s bidding and in this scenario of incessant war such a philosophy was essential to inspire soldiers to fight and shed blood for causes often removed from their sphere of existence. Truly, those old days may be long gone but the ideologies which supported them still continue to exercise their often startling and spectacular influence on the people…


The origin of prevalent notions, ideas, ideologies, conventions-indeed, all that is considered done and natural today- can be traced back to the past. As J.S.Mill so acutely pointed out, what is natural today is naught but customary, the word ‘natural’ being commonly used for all those notions…conventions to which the populace has over a long period of time become so accustomed or attuned to that they consider them as things which have always been there in society. Everything has a beginning and as for organised organic life like that of humans, so for the ideas and ideologies which support it- “the material conditions of life determine social consciousness” and not vice versa.

No, my dear SK, you are not Punjabi by nature!

An Afterthought-

There are, I know, many inconsistencies and defects in this work, the biggest of them being that by portraying a stereotypical image of the Punjabi people, it seems to be enhancing and marking supposed their difference, their ‘otherness’ from others with slightly greater vigour than is necessary. Further, being no anthropologist or sociologist myself, all these conclusions about what might have led to what are to a great extent debatable!


Devil Inside said...

Dearest TAI.I must complement the very deep study U'vedone over punjabi's.& although it was very callous of me to not read the whole article the way I would have read my english text book,that is ,with the article printout,pen/pencil & lots of thinking time(& a dictionary),I do get the jist of the article(though I wud like to ask you to please explain as to why 'S.K.' is not PUNJABI BY NATURE????.

Now if you remember,Ther's this show "mind your language"( i know i should mine,like the missing "E" in "ther's"),in which the Punjabi is shown more as a brute who keeps that big knife,& points it very valiantly to everybody(including himself,when in one episode he tries to attempt suicide),WHAt do you think of that presentation,are punjabis that way??

Might I also comment on the depth of your article by telling You that rarely do people know of punjab's history.Sikhism perpetuated hereonly 300-400 years ago,if Im not wrong,currently they are celebrating"300saal ,guru they knaal" meaning,'300years eith the guru".& with it came in lots via mythology,I would really like you to spread some light on that matter!!!!!

Here's seeking more from you O wise guy(& mean it litterally,not sarcastically)


Devil inside!!!!

SK said...

AP i am punjabi by nature. I proved that in the president house..... u know what i mean.....
Being a punjabi by nature is not just being a brute...... there's loads more ti it.

AP said...

To SK-
My dear boy, you are not Punjabi by Nature because what appears natural is but customary. You are what you are because you have been brought up in a certain manner, that manner now having become your nature...which is to say that while at birth you were just a human baby, which was your natural state, now at 19 you are a Punjabi...looking at the thing from that perspective, as regarding the born state as natural and the current as cultivated, means that you are not Punjabi by Nature, just as I am not AP by nature but by upbringing...
Of course, from another, more common perspective, you are Punjabi by Nature because that is your natural state now...
Where in this paper have I implied that being a Punjabi is being a brute? You read too much!