Soldiers’ Gods

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There are many soldier Gods in different border areas where the Indian Army operates. Most of the shrines dedicated to these Gods are situated in inhospitable terrain and mostly placed out of bounds to the civilians. There are no hymns or keertans sang on behalf of these Gods, they do not have ashrams, they do not ride in luxurious sedans, they do not hug devotees, they do not run charitable institutions, and they do not give darshans, and so on. They are soldiers who sacrificed their lives in service of their motherland and now regarded as patron saints guarding the areas where they achieved Martyrdom.


On my first assignment to the Kashmir Valley as a young Captain in 1987, my belief in  God Almighty was rekindled mainly because of the inhospitable terrain, sub-zero temperatures, heavy snow-falls, avalanches, thin air with deficiency of Oxygen, high-altitudes above 10,000 feet, and the drive through the mountain roads where one could slip off the road, down the gorges, and no trace would be left of the vehicle or the passengers.


I was attached to a Punjab Battalion as Artillery Observer. The Battalion had soldiers mainly from Punjab, Himachal and Jammu, consisting of Hindus and Sikhs. As per the norms of the Army, the battalion had a Mandir with a Hindu Pundit and a Gurudwara with a Sikh Granthi. On Sundays or on important religious days we attended both Mandir Parade and Gurudwara Parade. These being Parades, it was mandatory for all officers and soldiers to attend.

On the way to the battalion headquarters, there was a Muslim Peer Baba and every man, irrespective of their rank or position, used to stop and pay their respects to the Peer Baba before proceeding to the battalion. The belief among the soldiers, passed down over many decades of army deployment was that the Peer Baba took care of the soldiers and in case anyone failed to stop and pay respect, he will meet with some tragedy. Being a Christian by birth, I said the Lord’s prayer in the mornings and evenings, a ritual embedded in me by our father.


This was the place I understood the meaning of secularism and realised that all Gods were the same. I was never sure as to who saw me through my first Kashmir tenure, the Gods in the Temple, the Gurudwara, Peer Baba or Jesus. During my later years of field service in Sikkim and in Siachen Glacier, I came across two Soldier Gods.

OP Baba, Siachen Glacier, c/o 56 APO
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Siachen Glacier, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, highest battlefield of the world, is well known for its inhospitable and treacherous terrain, freezing cold at minus 40 degrees Celsius, crevasses and avalanches and lastly enemy action. Statistics reveal that more lives have been lost to the weather than to the enemy action since 1984, when Indian Army first occupied Siachen glacier. Hypoxia, High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (‘high-altitude sickness’ or HAPE), bone-chilling winds, sun burns, chill blains, frost bites, the thin air and sub-zero temperatures inducing acute depression, are  some of the weather factors affecting our soldiers. Most of the soldiers serving in such areas become very religious and the trust in their Gods really multiplies.

There are many a myths and legends about the Siachen Glacier like any other battlefields.  Legend has it that OP (Om Prakash) Baba, deeply revered by troops posted in these glacial heights, was an army soldier who fought valiantly to preserve Indian frontiers from Pakistani intruders in most adverse situations. Belief in the Soldier Saint is so strong that a formal report is given to OP Baba before induction of a soldier party on the glacier and after successful accomplishment of any mission. Any officer moving into the area reports his arrival to the Baba by visiting the shrine and paying his respects.


Faith in the legend of OP Baba is so strong that all troops give up consumption of alcohol and tobacco during their stay on the glacier as the Baba is believed to have been a strict disciplinarian and expects the same from fellow soldiers who come here to guard the frontier. Every battalion or company before taking position begins with a prayer at Baba’s shrine. The company commander gives a detailed briefing to Baba before tying a brass bell in the complex, taking a vow to keep away from cigarettes and intoxicants and fight the enemy till the last breath. Soldiers keep this promise till the last day of their tenure in the glacier and is strongly believed that any deviation is met with instant punishment from the legend himself.

It is believed that a night before any imminent danger, Baba comes in the dreams of soldiers and warns them of such eventuality. Baba has always been with the soldiers and protects every soldier and warns them of any impending danger in the Glacier.

Baba Harbhajan Singh, Sikkim, c/o 99 APO

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Baba Harbhajan Singh has defeated death. Believe it or not but it is true, one of its kind of story in the world- a man from an Indian Army in  Nathula border in Sikkim, is still doing his duty even after his death some three decades ago. 60km from Gangtok towards the Nathula Pass lies the valley of Kupup.  Here is the shrine of Baba Harbhajan popularly known as Baba Mandir. Baba Harbhajan has been guarding the international boundary of the two Asian giants, China and India over the last three decades. But believe me he does it alone. The Baba warns about the dangerous activities on the border through the dreams of fellow soldiers. Legend has it that even the Chinese soldiers confirm sighting a man riding a horse all alone, patrolling the border.

Born in Brondal village of Kapurthala, Punjab, Harbhajan Singh joined the 23rd Punjab Battalion on February 1966 as a Sepoy. On October 4, 1968 Sepoy Harbhajan Singh was escorting a mule caravan from his battalion headquarters and he fell into a fast flowing stream and was drowned. Search for Sepoy Harbhajan was made with no results it was on the fifth day of his missing, his Commanding Officer had a dream of Sepoy Harbhajan Singh informing him of his tragic incident and his personnel weapon being under the heap of snow. Sepoy Harbhajan Singh desired to have a Samadhi (memorial) made after him. The Commanding Officer ignored the dream as an imagination but later when the personnel weapon of Sepoy Harbhajan Singh was found at the spot where he had informed, the Commanding Officer was taken aback and to mark respect and towards his wish a samadhi was constructed there.


Here too, the belief in the soldier saint is so strong that any officer or soldiers moving into the area report their arrival to the Baba by visiting the shrine and paying his respects. On my arrival at Sikkim,  Colonel PK Ramachandran, our Commanding Officer, realising my rational stands on such issues had advised me to visit the Baba Mandir. He said that my visit to the Baba Mandir may mean nothing to me, but will go a long way in upholding the faith of the men under my command. I did as ordered without realising the implications of his words until I read a research paper by a US Army Doctor on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) suffered by operationally deployed US Army troops. I realised that cases of PTSD were the least in the Indian Army despite all the operational commitments and I can attribute it only to the faith in God by our troops and the role played by the myths and legends and patron saints of different areas. This may also be the reason for increased evangelistic activities reported among the US Military personnel deployed in operational zones.

St George and the British Army
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St George is patron of soldiers, cavalry and chivalry and he is the patron saint of England, Georgia, Lithuania, Portugal, Germany and Greece.  He has no biblical significance.  He held the rank of a tribune in the Roman army and was beheaded by Diocletian for protesting against the Emperor’s persecution of Christians. St George was adopted as the patron saint of soldiers after he was said to have appeared to the Crusader army at the Battle of Antioch in 1098.

He is usually represented on horseback in the act of spearing the monster which is vomiting fire.  It is based on a myth that in Sylene, a city of Libya, a lake was infested by a huge dragon, whose poisonous breath would kill anyone.  The citizens could never draw water from the lake and in order to keep the dragon away, every day a virgin was sacrificed to it.  One day the turn came for Sabra, the king’s daughter, to become its victim.  She was tied to the stake, and left to be devoured, when St. George appeared mounted on his charger and is believed to have killed the dragon.  Many similar stories were transmitted to the West by Crusaders who had heard them from Byzantine soldiers.

The banner of St George, the red cross of a martyr on a white background, was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers possibly during the reign of Richard I, and later became the flag of England and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy.

In 1940, when the civilian population of Britain was subjected to mass bombing by the Luftwaffe, King George VI instituted the George Cross for ‘acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger’.  The award, which is second only to the Victoria Cross, is usually given to civilians.  The award consists of a silver cross.  On one side of the cross is St George slaying the dragon, with the inscription, ‘For Gallantry’; on the other appear the name of the holder and the date of the award.

After setting foot in India, British Army built its first fort in Madras (now Chennai) in 1644 and christened it Fort St George after their patron saint.

 

 

Psalm 91 : The Soldiers’ Psalm

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During our childhood, we recited Psalm 91 as part of the evening Family Prayer (Click Here to Read More about it).  In those days I never realised the meaning of the words we recited and did not visualise that it would come handy in the future.  During my first stint in the Kashmir Border, sleeping alone in my bunker, the very same words would ring in my ears.  These words I realised helped me tide over the difficulties and uncertainties that lie ahead for any soldier in  high-altitude terrain, mostly snow covered icy heights, prone to avalanches and blizzards and  bone chilling cold.  Hence I decided to recite Psalm 91 every evening, (in Malayalam, the language in which my father taught me the Psalm), before I retired to bed.  Psalm 91 has for ever been one of my inspirations and a prayer.

There is a ‘story’ in circulation by the modern evangelists that during World War I, 91 Infantry Brigade of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was preparing to enter combat in Europe. Because their commander was a devout Christian, he assembled his men and gave each of them a little card on which was printed the Psalm 91, the same number Psalm as their brigade. They agreed to recite that Psalm daily. After they had begun praying the Psalm, 91 Brigade was engaged in three of the bloodiest battles of World War I – Chateau Thierry, Belle Wood and the Argonne. Other American units that fought in the same battles had up to 90 percent casualties, but 91 Brigade did not suffer a single combat-related casualty.

The truth about this ‘story’ of 91 Infantry Brigade and the Psalm 91 has been cleared By Mary Jane Holt in an article ‘The truth about the 91st Psalm’.  The article refers to a communication the author received from Mike Hanlon, Research Editor of Relevance, the Quarterly Journal of The Great War Society: “There was no 91 Brigade with the AEF in World War I. The Brigades’ highest number was 84.”  This story appears to have been churned out by an evangelist with a view to cash in on the sympathy the soldiers world over enjoy.

The Bible historians believe that Psalm 91 might have been written by Moses, even though most Psalms have been authored by King David.  Moses would have written it to inspire the enslaved Israelite soldiers to fight against their Egyptian masters.  Hence, Psalm 91 is known as the Soldiers’ Psalm and is also referred to as the Psalm of Protection.

There are many testimonies of NATO soldiers keeping a card size print of Psalm 91 in their pockets and also reciting it during their deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Psalm as it is, would be applicable to all soldiers irrespective of their faith or religion.

The Psalm begins by stating that there is no need to fear because of who He is. Then is a more personal relationship to God as the Almighty is referred to as ‘My refuge, My fortress, My God in whom I trust’.  Thus the personal relationship we have with our God enables us not to fear at all.  It follows with an affirmation that He will come to your rescue in case of any difficulties and that He will protect you as He would cover you under His wings like a mother bird.

Then is the declaration of guarantee by  God that He will protect you from all that a soldier may confront in a battlefield like ‘the terror of night’,  ‘arrow that flies by day’, ‘the pestilence that stalks in the darkness’, and ‘the plague that destroys at midday’.  He also provides you the protection while you rest that no disaster would come near your tent.  The God vows to protect the soldier even though thousands may fall on either side.  God has commanded the angels to guard you so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.

The Psalm further says that you will tread upon the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.  This act can only be done by a soldier in a battlefield and the soldier has to move ahead facing the enemy’s bullets and nothing can stop him from carrying out his divine duty.  For God’s sake, don’t even let the thought about these actions come to anyone else’s mind or even in the mind of a soldier in peacetime, as the wild life protection laws of no nation will ever spare you and please do not expect God to come to your rescue.

The Psalm concludes with a God’s promise to a soldier ‘He will call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him, and honour him.  With a long life I will satisfy him, and let him behold My salvation.’

In Bhagawad Gita, Lord Krishna exhorts Arjuna to fight by saying “O son of Kuntī, either you will be killed on the battlefield and attain the heavenly planets, or you will conquer and enjoy the earthly kingdom. Therefore get up and fight with determination.”  Here again the Lord guarantees a soldier the grand honour of the right to heaven.