By Jasjit Mansingh October 2004 The sikh faith arose from gurus who outlined a simple spiritual path for the common man. teachings of the gurus and their contemporary saints were compiled in the guru granth sahib—the faith’s living guru The Granth Sahib, repository of the Gurus’ collective wisdom, points the way to the formless Truth The Sikh religion blossomed in the great fertile alluvial plains of north India, in the land known in Persian as Panj-Ab—the five rivers. The seed of the new faith was sown by the mystic saint-poet Guru Nanak (1469-1539), it took root, and was assiduously nurtured over a period of over 200 years by nine gurus until Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), the tenth guru, ended the line of personal gurus and vested the authority in the Bani itself as the Eternal Living Guru. The Guru Granth Sahib is thus, for the Sikhs, the Ultimate Guru. It is treated with reverence, recited, sung as shabd-kirtan so that it stirs the heart and soul. From it the devout seek guidance not only in their practical mundane lives but inspiration to live up to the lofty idealism enshrined in the Word (bani) of the Gurus as it had permeated their thoughts, words, and deeds during their lifetimes. It points the way to the realisation of the ultimate goal of man—union with Godhead, the Supreme Reality, which Guru Nanak had indicated as Ik Onkaar, the indivisible, ever-existent, formless Truth transcending time, the Omnipresent unaffected by the duality of conflicting emotional states. That which is attained only by the grace of the Guru. Gurus versus emperorsThe 200 years during which the Sikh faith came into being coincide almost exactly with the establishment of Mughal political power in India. Guru Nanak (1469-1539) and Babar (1483-1530) were contemporaries as were Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) and Aurangzeb (1618-1707). Lahore was the seat of imperial power, and Guru Nanak’s place of birth, now called Nankana Sahib, was only 65 km southwest of Lahore. An intertwining, sometimes of help but more often of conflict, is seen in the lives of Mughal emperors of the time and the Gurus. Guru Angad settled at Khadur Sahib, not far from the river Beas where once he and Guru Nanak had meditated. Humayun sought sanctuary with the Guru after suffering a crushing defeat but was angered when he had to wait for a while to meet the Guru. When the Guru came, Humayun drew his sword. Guru Angad shamed him by enquiring if his bravery extended to raising a sword against a saint. In 1557, when Akbar sent for Guru Amardas on receiving a complaint from caste Hindus that the institution of langar (community kitchen) violated long established customs, Bhai Jetha was sent to defend the charges. Akbar was pleased and granted a sizeable estate to Bibi Bhani, younger daughter of Guru Amardas, as a token of his regard for the Guru. Bhai Jetha, an orphan who lived with the Guru, became the Guru’s son-in-law and spiritual heir as Guru Ramdas, and was given the task of finding a suitable place to serve as a focal point for the ever-growing adherents of the new faith. The guru gaddi passed to Guru Ramdas in 1574. Akbar had great admiration for the Guru and bestowed a site in Punjab in 1577. The township that sprang up when the devoted (both Hindus and Muslims) flocked there to contribute their labour was known as Guru ka Chak and the first tank was named Amar Sarovar. Guru Arjan Dev completed the construction of the sacred tank and Harimandir Sahib—the Golden Temple as we know now it. These were built with voluntary labour, or Kar Seva, which is one of the tenets of the faith. What Guru Nanak had set into motion gathered strength and culminated, in 1604, in another historic event. The Adi Granth, compiled and collated by Guru Arjan Dev, an accomplished poet and mystic, was completed and installed in the Golden Temple, the magnificent shrine he had built amidst the holy sarovar at Amritsar. The Adi Granth is a collection of hymns and songs of Guru Nanak and his successor Gurus, with over 2000 verses and hymns contributed by Guru Arjan Dev including his psalm of peace, Sukhmani Sahib. It includes also songs and sayings of Bhakti and Sufi saints that Guru Nanak had collected from various part of India during his extensive travels. Placed at the beginning is Guru Nanak’s Mul Mantra, Ik Onkaar, and the Japji or the morning prayer which is an obeisance to the Almighty. Guru Arjan, too, travelled but mostly in Punjab. He established a cadre of local leaders to look after sangats (Sikh communities) and welfare work such as digging of wells. “Guru Arjan,” says the Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, “thus marked a central point in the evolution of the Sikh tradition. Under his fostering care the Sikh faith acquired a strong scriptural, doctrinal and organisational base, and became potentially the force for a cultural and social revolution in Punjab. Its religious and social ideals received telling affir-mation in practice…. By encouraging agriculture and trade and by the introduction of a system of tithe-collection (the daswand or a tenth of all earning) for the common use of the community, a stable economic base was secured.” The WayGuru Nanak had already set a personal example to his followers. After his extensive travels, all over India and westwards to Mecca and Medina, he went to live by the left bank of the river Ravi, north-east of Lahore, establishing a community called Kartarpur—city of God. Mardana, a Muslim rabab player, and Bala, a Hindu, his constant companions during his travels, settled with him as did his family and many followers. It was a simple life of farming for self-sufficiency based on his ideal of honest living: “Higher than Truth, is truthful living.” The common kitchen gave rise to the institution of langar, where high and low sat together to partake of simple meals. This struck at the root of discriminatory social hierarchy. Nanak upheld the dignity of labour, following the creed that he preached. He lived simply and in prayer for the love of God through Naam Japa and simran (remembrance). He demonstrated that spirituality was not the domain of priests or sannyasis, but the ordinary man or woman, while attending to their household duties and needs, could also lead a deeply spiritual life. “Sikhism,” remarks Kalindi Charan Panigrahi in Homage to Nanak, has discovered the simplest and purest meaning of religion. We can serve God through our work alone.” Says Guru Nanak:He who toils and earns Then with his hand gives some away, He, O Nanak, has discovered the real way. Says Gurbachan Singh Talib in the essay ‘A Perspective on Guru Nanak’s Teaching’ from the book Guru Nanak: A homage: “The Guru’s grand conception was to give to the Indian masses one sublime, transcendent faith in a Supreme Creator, and to reconcile Hindu and Muslim on the basis of the recognition of universal, moral, and spiritual values inherent in all true religion. It was a mighty creative idea, aiming at the true integration of Indian humanity in a scene torn by strife and rancour…it would also reconcile the hitherto irreconcilable orthodoxies of Hinduism and Islam.” The Sikh faith is often projected as a ‘synthesis’ of the two traditions but I think to call it ‘transcendent’ would be much more accurate. It acknowledges both but goes beyond them. Talib notes: “He enunciated a consistent creed for the people”, and intended that “various elements should harmonise with one other in their spiritual and moral significance and should thoroughly discard whatever was out of harmony with it.” Era of aggressionThe nucleus of followers at Kartarpur expanded slowly but surely. Guru Arjan achieved a cohesiveness with his impressive personality, disposition and teachings. Jahangir, who ascended the Mughal throne after Akbar’s death in 1605, felt threatened by the faith’s influence. He wrote in his memoirs: “So many of the simple-minded Hindus, nay, many foolish Muslims too had been fascinated by the Guru’s ways and teaching… either I should put an end to the false traffic, or he be brought into the fold of Islam.” It was his effort to do the latter that resulted in Guru Arjan’s martyrdom in 1606. He was brought to the court at Lahore and subjected to inhuman physical torture. Mian Mir, a Sufi saint who had been invited to lay the foundation of Harimandir Sahib, offered to pay the fine demanded by Jahangir. The Guru declined and said that the right course would be to accept God’s will. He lived out Guru Nanak’s ethical injunctions: “Personal piety must have a core of moral strength. A virtuous soul must be a courageous soul. Willingness to suffer for one’s convictions was a religious imperative.” The golden period in the evolution of Sikhism drew to a close. A new direction became inevitable because of the personalities and policies of the ruling emperors. Bigotry had to be countered. From now on, clash of steel against steel would be heard. Guru Hargobind wore two swords—piri and miri—denoting both spiritual sovereignty and temporal ascendance. He also maintained an armed retinue. Jahangir imprisoned the Guru in the Gwalior fort on the charge that the fine imposed on Guru Arjan, his father, had not been paid! His eventual return to Amritsar was celebrated by illuminating the town. The centre of Mughal power moved to Delhi and with the accession of Shah Jahan in 1628, open clashes occurred. When Amritsar became subject to skirmishes, Guru Hargobind was forced to abandon it. He moved to Kiratpur, northeast of Delhi, to found a new city where the Granth Sahib was installed. The lives of the next three gurus, culminating in the martyrdom of the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur, the younge
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