It is an appropriate coincidence that Vaisakhi falls close to the Christian festival of Easter. Both have their roots in the brave martyrdom of a religious leader and the human frailty of those that follow. The story of Peter's denial at the time of Jesus Christ's crucifixion is mirrored in the martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadhur, the ninth Guru of the Sikhs. The Guru was publicly beheaded for defending the rights of Hindus facing persecution and forced conversion to Islam at the hands of the Mughal rulers. His courageous stand was later echoed in Voltaire's sentiment: "I may not believe in what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it."
The Mughal Emperor challenged the Guru's followers, who then had no recognisable appearance, to come forward and claim their master's body. But Sikhs in the crowd hesitated to do so and the body was eventually removed by stealth.
The Guru's son and successor, Guru Gobind Singh, was concerned about this momentary lapse of courage. He constantly reminded Sikhs of the need to stand up for their beliefs however great the odds. Then he decided to put the community to the test. On the spring festival of Vaisakhi 1699, as crowds were celebrating the gathering of the winter harvest, the Guru suddenly emerged from a tent, sword in hand, and asked for any Sikh willing to give his life for his faith, to join him in the tent. Without hesitation, five Sikhs instantly responded to the challenge.
In a simple ceremony in which sweetened water, called Amrit, was sprinkled on the five, the Guru initiated the "five beloved" as the first members of a new community of equals who were to combine steely resolve with saintliness of temperament. They were required neither to intimidate nor be intimidated by others. To complete the ceremony, the Guru gave the first five members of the Khalsa, the community of equals, the symbols or visible identity - including the long hair covered by a turban - by which we are recognised today. Finally he asked the five to drop any name linked to caste and take the common name "Singh" - literally "lion" - as a reminder of the need for courage. In the same way, women were asked to take the common name "Kaur" - literally "princess" - as a reminder of dignity and complete equality.
Sikhs then, like members of the Salvation Army with their uniform, have a visible identity to remind us of our principles and ideals. By the same token we allow others to measure us against our beliefs. But Sikhs aren't alone in their emphasis on responsible living. Jesus Christ gave his life for his faith and the teachings of both faiths make clear that society has to pay for short-term expediency. As the lines of a Christian hymn remind us: "they enslave their children's children, who would compromise with sin".
Today we have to ask why is it that the values taught by religion, which seem sensible in themselves, have got such a bad press? Undoubtedly it is partly because of the way religion is often put forward as a series of chants and rituals rather than as a sane practical and, dare I say it, necessary guide to responsible living. In ditching such guidance, we have made up our own, putting "I" or "me" or "us" rather than God at the centre of the scheme of things - expediency with disastrous consequences measured in the rise of crime, family breakdown and our attitude to others, both near and far.
Today we are all numbed by the suffering in Kosovo, Rwanda and many other parts of world, but we need to ask ourselves how much this is due to a globalisation of moral drift, where arms exports and political support to known tyrants are considered fine, as by the French in Rwanda or ourselves to Saddam Hussein in the Eighties - until something goes wrong. Even today, Slobodan Milosevic is asking his neighbour Russia for more arms.
Sikh teachings on the use of force are clear. When all other means of combating evil fail, it is permissible to turn to the use of force. Nato must finish what it has started. But moral questions persist. Why the use of force against Saddam Hussein and Serbia and the turning of a blind eye to the dozen or so other regimes carrying out unspeakable atrocities on their fellow citizens?
When the United Nations organisation was created at the end of the Second World War, particular responsibility for the maintenance of peace was given to the five permanent members of the Security Council. Today they are responsible for 80 per cent of the world's arms trade.
Clearly there is a need to establish UN boundaries of unacceptable behaviour beyond which retribution will be certain and swift rather than the dithering of final warning on final warning that encourages the tyrant to think he may get away with it. But it also means getting away from special relationships and considerations of trade. It means looking afresh at the sane guidance of true religion. It means standing up and being counted for our beliefs, even when it is difficult or unprofitable to do so.
Indarjit Singh is editor of the `Sikh Messenger'