By Jasjit Mansingh
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 emperors
The 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.”
Guru 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
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 aggression
The 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 youngest son of Guru Hargobind, were tempered by the need to protect the faith. Guru Har Rai (1630-1661) was the grandson of Guru Hargobind. Guru Har Krishan, the eighth guru, great-grandson of Guru Hargobind, was only five years old when the mantle of spiritual succession fell on his shoulders. Though young, the jyot (light of consciousness) of Guru Nanak infused him. In Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth, Bhai Santokh Singh recounts how an illiterate villager was able to lucidly comment on the Bhagavad Gita with the Guru’s blessing.
Prayer of the brave
In the Ardas, recited at the conclusion of every reading of the Granth Sahib, kirtan, or private prayer, the first stanza is taken from Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru. He commends remembrance of the previous nine gurus, singling out Guru Har Krishan (“jis dhitthe sab dukh jaye”—at whose darshan all sorrow vanishes). The reference is to the Guru’s presence in Delhi on Aurangzeb’s summons, when the city was ravaged by smallpox. The young Guru tended to the sick and was soon infected. He still gave darshan, and many reported being cured.
Remembrance of Guru Tegh Bahadur gives the seeker the nine virtues extolled in ancient scriptures, says the Ardas. Guru Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom is unique in the annals of scriptural lore. He interceded for the right of Kashmiri Pandits to practise their own faith. The Encyclopedia of Sikhism comments: “Guru Tegh Bahadur’s protest was against the State’s interference with the individual’s duty towards his faith. It meant…that any attempt to create a unitary, monolithic society must be resisted. It was a reiteration of the Sikh belief in a liberal and ethical order and of the Sikh principles of tolerance and acceptance of diversity of belief and practice.”
The next portion of the Ardas is a salutation to Guru Gobind Singh and acknowledges the bani of the ten gurus as the spirit of the Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Arjan used ordinal numbers (Mahla 1, or 4, or 5 and so on) to indicate authorship of the gurus, and ‘Nanak’ continued to be the voice for each of the six gurus whose bani is included. Guru Gobind Singh added some works, in particular the 59 sabdas and 57 slokas of Guru Tegh Bahadur. The message of the Granth Sahib is: “The central theme is the affirmation of Reality, the ultimate ground of all that exists. The main quest is for mukti or release. Loving-devotion is set forth as the truest virtue… By immersing oneself in naam, that is by constant remembrance of the Divine Name, one attains moksha or mukti.” Guru Gobind Singh did not include his own work in the Granth Sahib. It is recorded separately in the Dasam Granth.
The next stanza of the Ardas addresses this omission. It is a shorthand sketch of the main life events of Guru Gobind Singh. Skirmishes of earlier times had become full-fledged battles. Upon the creation of the Khalsa (brotherhood of the pure) in 1699, the Guru asked for volunteers holding an unsheathed sword. Five came forward. They were from different parts of India and represented the most oppressed classes. They are the panj piaryean (five dear ones) with which the stanza begins. They were baptised with amrit, sweetened water stirred with a double-edged sword (khanda). Among the five Ks they were enjoined to observe was the kada, the steel bracelet, signifying strength and resolve. Guru Gobind Singh gave the Sikhs a distinct identity that left no room for cowardice or expediency.
The Ardas is a constant reminder, a daily call to Sikhs to keep the faith and not allow the sacrifices of the brave, including the heroes of the next hundred years or so, to be in vain.
The might of the Mughal emperor could not be stemmed. The Sikh fighting forces had been destroyed and the remaining persuaded Guru Gobind Singh to retreat. In 1706 he spent nine months at Talwandi Sabo recouping and giving the Guru Granth Sahib its final form.
A strange twist of history happened next. Aurangzeb died in February 1707. The Guru sent a contingent of Sikhs to support the liberal Prince Mu’azzam’s claim to the throne. The new emperor, now called Bahadur Shah, marched south to quell a rebellion. The Guru accompanied him, preaching the word of Guru Nanak on the way. Upon reaching Nanded, on the banks of the Godavari, the emperor continued south while the Guru stayed on.
Assassins sent by the Nawab of Sirhind caught up with the Guru here. He succumbed to the wounds inflicted by the assassins on October 7, 1708. The day before, sensing the end was near, he asked for the sacred book. He placed before it five paise and a coconut, bowed his head and addressed the sangat: “It is my commandment: Own Sri Granthji in my place….”
Guru maanio Granth, Pargat Guran di deh—“The Guru’s spirit,” he said, “will henceforth be in the Granth and the Khalsa. Where the Granth is, with any five Sikhs representing the Khalsa, there will the Guru be.”
Three hundred years later, Sri Guru Granth Sahib as finalised by Guru Gobind Singh continues to be the living guru in the form of the Word incarnate, the bani. It is the focal point of Sikh devotion. It is the perpetual authority, spiritual and historical. Through it Sikhs live their faith fully and vividly. It is the ultimate guide to the path pointed by the Gurus.
In the Ardas is a reference to degh (kettle, or the langar implying charity) and tegh (the sword which stood for both self-defence and justice for the oppressed). Banda Singh Bahadur, blessed by Guru Gobind Singh, was perhaps the first Sikh ‘ruler’ of Punjab. His seal had the names of the Gurus and the words degh and tegh. Ultimately, the royal armies won and again, Lahore and Delhi were witness to scenes of unbelievable cruelty. Yet, in the Ardas, there is forgiving and forgetting: “Dekh ke andhith kita”—having seen all this it was blanked out. Yet, the injunction is to meditate on it and then praise the Lord—Waheguru.
Today there are Sikhs all over the world. The call is still Waheguru, Waheguru. Sikhism is much more than a guru-based movement; it is a religion with universal relevance firmly grounded in the vision of mystics of extraordinary sensitivity. Nanak sang. And it was the genius of Guru Arjan to set the entire bani to musical modes. Music is the language of the soul. The Guru Granth Sahib is the Way. It is the way of meditation, if followed sincerely, to Sachkhand, the abode of God.
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