Bandi Chhor Divas is a Sikh holiday that marks the anniversary of Guru Hargobind Sahib's liberation from unjust imprisonment and his return to the Akal Takht (Eternal Throne) at Amritsar. Diwali is the Festival of Light celebrated in the fall. To understand why Bandi Chhor Divas is celebrated during the festival of Diwali, one must understand the mythological context that the sixth Guru's disciples perceived his liberation through. When the Mughal emperor was compelled to free Guru Hargobind from an unjust imprisonment, the Guru refused to leave unless the emperor also freed 52 other innocent prisoners. Recognizing that only a righteous man would make such a demand, the emperor granted his request on the condition that only the number of prisoners that could hold onto his coat could be freed with him. History differs in some of the details but the Guru devised a way to let all 52 innocent prisoners join him in freedom. Guru Hargobind returned to Amritsar on the third day of Diwali, an ancient festival celebrated throughout South Asia which marked the occasion when a great mythical king returned to his ruling city after exile. For the Sikhs of Guru Hargobind, witnessing their Guru return on this day turned mythology into reality and they celebrated with great fervor knowing that their Gurus were the true kings (Sache Patshah) who would bring peace and order to the world. From then on, the date and themes of the celebration remained the same, but the significance took on a new meaning based on real events.
DIWALI AS A BACKDROP
Diwali originated as a festival that marked the last harvest before winter. Over the centuries, various mythologies surrounding the festival began to take shape. In South India, people celebrate Diwali as the day Krishna defeated Narakasura. The people of Maharashtra celebrate Balipratipada, the day King Bali returns to Earth. In North India, Diwali came to be associated with the Ramayan, an epic story written by an ancient sage known as Valmiki. Although the characters and story features from the Ramayan are referenced throughout Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, the Guru makes it abundantly clear that the characters in the Ramayan are not God:
ਨਾਨਕ ਨਿਰਭਉ ਨਿਰੰਕਾਰੁ ਹੋਰਿ ਕੇਤੇ ਰਾਮ ਰਵਾਲ ॥
O Nanak, the Lord is fearless and formless; myriads of others, like Rama, are mere dust before Him.
- Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Ang 464
ਰਾਮੁ ਗਇਓ ਰਾਵਨੁ ਗਇਓ ਜਾ ਕਉ ਬਹੁ ਪਰਵਾਰੁ ॥
Ram Chand passed away, as did Ravaan, even though he had many relatives
- Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Ang 1429
The Dasam Granth, a secondary Sikh scripture, gives multiple assertions that Raam is not God:
ਜੌ ਕਹੌ ਰਾਮ ਅਜੋਨਿ ਅਜੈ ਅਤਿ ਕਾਹੇ ਕੌ ਕੌਸ਼ਲ ਕੁੱਖ ਜਯੋ ਜੂ ॥
ਕਾਲਹੂੰ ਕਾਲ ਕਹੈ ਜਿਹਿ ਕੌ ਕਿਹਿ ਕਾਰਣ ਕਾਲ ਤੇ ਦੀਨ ਭਯੋ ਜੂ ॥
If we consider Raam, the Lord as Unborn, then how did he take birth from the womb of Kaushalya? He, who is said to be the destroyer of Death, then why did none become subjugated himself before Death?
- Dasam Granth, 33 Svaiyye
ਰਾਮ ਰਹੀਮ ਪੁਰਾਨ ਕੁਰਾਨ ਅਨੇਕ ਕਹੈਂ ਮਤ ਏਕ ਨ ਮਾਨਯੋ ॥
The Puranas speak of Ram, and the Qur'an of Rahim, but I don't believe in either of them
- Dasam Granth, Chaubis Avtar
But to dismiss the Ramayan because it isn't based on real people would be short sighted. Like the Iliad and the Odyssey of Western literature, the Ramayan holds many storytelling lessons. The first Sikh scholar and maternal uncle of the fifth Guru, Bhai Gurdas Ji, upheld the actions of the main character Raam as an example for Sikhs to emulate. In his ballad, Bhai Gurdas Ji encourages Sikhs to adopt Raam's uncompromising commitment to morality and principles of righteousness. In Vaar 31 he writes:
ਰਾਮਾਇਣੁ ਜੁਗਿ ਜੁਗਿ ਅਟਲੁ ਸੇ ਉਧਰੇ ਜੋ ਆਏ ਸਰਣਾ।
Ramayan (the story of Ram) is ever firm (in the mind of people) and whoever seeks shelter (in it) goes across (the world ocean)
RAMAYAN IN PROPER CONTEXT
Knowing the position that the Ramayan has in the eyes of the Guru makes it easier to contextualize it. For small children, explaining the story of the Ramayan probably isn't necessary for them to understand the significance of Bandi Chhor Divas and the virtue of selflessness. In Kirat's version, she doesn't even mention Raam by name and instead refers to him as a mythical king. This is purposely done to reduce the number of characters in the story so that small children can grasp it with ease. But as your children get older and begin reading Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji for themselves, it might help them to have a basic understanding of the Ramayan as they come across characters and references from it. For teenage children who seek a deeper understanding of the Indian mythology found in Gurbani, there are various books written in English that reveal the allegories embedded in the Ramayan.