BHAGAUTI (J. S. Neki, Giani Balwant Singh) 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:
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
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: