The Source Book On Sikhism

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Chapter Twenty-Six

Guru Arjan Dev Ji

Principal Gurbachan Singh Talib

Guru Arjan Dev Ji (1563 - 1606), fifth in the line of ten gurus or prophet-teachers of the Sikh faith, was born on Baisakh vadi 7, 1620 Bk/15 April, 1563, at Goindval, in present-day Amritsar district, to Bhai Jetha who later occupied the seat of Guruship as Guru Ram Das, fourth in succession from Guru Nanak, and his wife, Bibi (lady) Bhani, daughter of Guru Amar Das, the Third Guru. The youngest son of his parents, (Guru) Arjan Dev Ji was of a deeply religious temperament and his father’s favourite. This excited the jealousy of his eldest brother, Prithi Chand. Once Guru Ram Das had an invitation to attend at Lahore the wedding of a relation. The Guru, unable to go himself, wanted one of his sons to represent him at the ceremony. Prithi Chand, the eldest son, avoided going and made excuses. The second son, Mahadev, had little interest in worldly affairs. Arjan Dev Ji willingly offered to do the Guru’s bidding. He was sent to Lahore with instructions to remain there and preach Guru Nanak’s word until sent for. Arjan Dev stayed on in Lahore where he established a Sikh sangat. From Lahore, he wrote to his father letters in verse, filled with spiritual overtones, giving vent to the pangs of his heart. Guru Ram Das recalled him to Amritsar, and judging him fit to inherit Guru Nanak’s mantle pronounced him his successor.

Guru Arjan entered upon the spiritual office on the death of Guru Ram Das on 1 September, 1581. Under his affectionate care the Sikh faith acquired a strong scriptural, doctrinal and organization base, and became potentially the force for a cultural and social revolution in the Punjab. Its religious and social ideals received telling affirmation in practice. It added to its orbit more concrete and permanent symbols and its administration became more cohesive. By encouraging agriculture and trade and by the introduction of a system of tithe-collection for the common use of the community, a stable economic base was secured. Guru Arjan gave Sikhism its Scripture, the Granth Sahib, and its main place of worship, the Harimandar, the Golden Temple of modern day. He taught, by example, humility and sacrifice, and was the first martyr of the Sikh faith. The work of the first four Gurus was preparatory. It assumed a more definitive form in the hands of Guru Arjan. Later Gurus substantiated the principles manifested in his life. Guru Arjan thus marked a central point in the evolution of the Sikh tradition. Guru Arjan remained in the central Punjab throughout his spiritual reign. Recorded history speaks of his movements between Goindval, Lahore, Amritsar, Tarn Taran and Kartarpur, near Jalandhar. His policy seems to have been one of consolidation and development. Despite the many forms of opposition which he had to face, Guru Arjan consolidated the community by his hymns, leadership and institutional reforms.

The first task that Guru Arjan undertook was the completion of the Amritsar pool. Sikhs came from distant places to join in the work of digging. The Guru also started extending the town. He had the Harimandar built in the middle of the holy tank and, according to Ghulam Muhayy ud-Din alias Bute Shah (Twarikh-i-Punjab), and Giani Gian Singh (Twarikh Guru Khalsa, Urdu), had the cornerstone of the building laid by the famous Muslim Sufi Mian Mir (1550 - 1635). Ghulam Muhayy ud-Din states that Shah Mian Mir came to Amritsar at Guru Arjan’s request, and “with his own blessed hand put four bricks, one on each side, and another one in the middle of the tank.” As against the generality of the temples in India with their single east-facing entrance, the new shrine was given four doors, one in each direction, symbolizing the openness of outlook to be preached from within it. Each door could also be taken to stand for one of the four castes which should be equally welcome to enter and receive spiritual sustenance. At the temple, Guru Arjan, in keeping with the tradition of his predecessors, maintained a community kitchen which was open to all castes and creeds. Inside the temple, the chanting of hymns would go on for most hours of day and night. Around the temple developed markets to which the Guru invited traders from different regions to settle and open their business. Rest houses for pilgrims were also built and soon a city had grown up with the Harimandar as its focus. In addition Guru Arjan completed the construction of Santokhsar and Ramsar sarovars started by his predecessor. The precincts of the peaceful and picturesque latter pool provided the quiet retreat where over a considerable period the Guru remained occupied in giving shape to the Sikh Scripture, the Granth Sahib.

Guru Arjan undertook a tour of the Punjab to spread the holy word. From Amritsar, he proceeded on a journey through the Majha territory. Coming upon the site of the present shrine of Tarn Taran (The Holy Raft across the Sinful Waters of Worldliness), 24 km. south of Amritsar, he felt much attracted by the beauty of its natural surroundings. He acquired the land from the owners, the residents of the village of Khara, and constructed a tank as well as a sanctuary which became pilgrim spots for Sikhs. Especially drawn towards Tarn Taran were the lepers who were treated here by the Guru with much loving care. As he moved from village to village, Guru Arjan helped people sink wells and undertake several other works of public weal, especially to alleviate the hardship caused by the famine which then gripped the Punjab. The city of Lahore even today has a baoli, or well with steps going down to water level, built by Guru Arjan. Another town raised by the Guru was Kartarpur, in the Jalandhar doab between the rivers Beas and Sutlej. He also rebuilt a ruined village, Ruhela, on the right bank of the River Beas, and renamed it Sri Gobindpur or Sri Hargobindpur after his son (Guru) Hargobind.

Many people were drawn into the Sikh fold in consequence of Guru Arjan’s travels. The Guru’s fame spread far and wide bringing to him devotees from all over the Punjab, from the eastern parts then called Hindustan and from far-off lands such as Kabul and Central Asia. This growing following was kept united by an efficient cadre of local leaders, called masands who looked after the sangats, Sikh centres, in far-flung parts of the country. They collected from the disciples dasvandh or one-tenth of their income which they were enjoined to give away for communal sharing, and led the Sikhs to the Guru’s presence periodically. The Guru’s assemblies had something of the appearance of a theocratic court. The Sikhs had coined a special title for him - Sachcha Padsha, i.e. the True King, as distinguished from the secular monarch. Offerings continued to pour in which in the tradition of the Guru’s household would be spent on feeding the poor and on works of public beneficence - the Guru and his family living in a state of self-imposed poverty in the way of the service of God. A son, Hargobind, was born to Guru Arjan and his wife, Mata Ganga, in 1595. At the birth of his only child, there were rejoicings in the Guru’s household which are reflected in his hymns of thanksgiving preserved in the Guru Granth Sahib.

A most significant undertaking of Guru Arjan’s career which was brought to completion towards the close of his short life was the compilation of the Adi (Primal) Granth, codifying the compositions of the Gurus into an authorized volume. According to Sarup Das Bhalla, Mahima Prakash, he set to work with the announcement: “As the Panth (community) has been revealed unto the world, so must there be the Granth (book), too.” The bani, Gurus’ inspired utterance, had always been the object of highest reverence for the Sikhs as well as for the Gurus themselves. It was equated with the Guru himself.

“The bani is the Guru and the Guru bani” (GG, 982). By accumulating the canon, Guru Arjan wished to affix the seal on the sacred word and preserve it for posterity. It was also to be the perennial fountain of inspiration and the means of self-perpetuation for the community. Guru Arjan had his father’s as well as hymns of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, Guru Angad Dev Ji and Guru Amar Das Ji in his possession. In addition, he sent out emissaries in every direction in search of the gurus’ compositions. The making of the Granth involved sustained labour and rigorous intellectual discipline.

Selections had to be made from a vast mass of material. What was genuine had to be sifted from what was counterfeit. Then the selected material had to be assigned to appropriate musical measures, edited and recast where necessary, and transcribed in a minutely laid-out order. Guru Arjan accomplished the task with extraordinary exactness. He arranged the hymns in thirty different ragas or musical patterns. A precise method was followed in setting down the compositions. First came sabdas by the Gurus in the order of their succession, then came astpadis and other poetic forms in a set order and the vars.

The compositions of the Gurus in each raga were followed by those of the bhaktas in the same format. Gurmukhi was the script used for transcription. A genius unique in spiritual insight and not unconcerned with methodological design had created a scripture with an exalted mystical tone and a high degree of organization. It was large in size - nearly 6,000 hymns containing compositions of the first five Gurus (Guru Arjan’s own contribution being the largest) and fifteen saints of different faiths and castes, including the Muslim Sufi, Shaikh Farid, Ravidas, a shoemaker, and Sain, a barber.

Guru Arjan’s vast learning in the religious literature of medieval India and the varied philosophies current at the popular and academic levels, besides his accomplishment in music and his knowledge of languages ranging from the Sanskrit of Jayadeva (Jaidev) through the neo-classical tradition in Hindi poetry then developing into the various dialects spread over the great expanse of northern and central India and Maharashtra is visible from his evaluative work in putting together this authoritative collection. The completion of the Adi Granth was celebrated with much jubilation. In thanksgiving, karahprasad was distributed in huge quantities among the Sikhs who had come in large numbers to see the Holy Book. The Granth was ceremonially installed in the centre of the inner sanctuary of the Harimandar Sahib on Bhadon sudi 1,661 Bk/16 August, 1604. The revered Bhai Buddha who was chosen to take charge of the Granth, opened it with reverence to receive from it the divine command or lesson as Guru Arjan stood in attendance behind. The following hymn was read as God’s own word for the occasion:

He Himself hath succoured His saints in their work;

He Himself hath come to see their task fulfilled,

Blessed is the earth, blessed the tank;

Blessed is the tank with amrit filled.

Amrit overfloweth the tank: He hath the task completed.

The Granth Sahib, containing hymns of Gurus and of Hindu and Muslim saints, was a puzzle for people of orthodox views. Complaints were carried to the Mughal emperor that the book was derogatory to Islam and other religions. The emperor, who was then encamped at Batala in the Punjab asked to see Guru Arjan who sent Bhai Buddha and Bhai Gurdas, two revered Sikhs, with the Granth. The book was opened at random and read from the spot pointed out by Akbar. The hymn was in praise of God. So were the others, read out subsequently. Akbar was pleased and made an offering of fifty-one gold mohars to the Granth Sahib. He presented Bhai Buddha and Bhai Gurdas with robes of honour and gave a third one for the Guru. Akbar had himself visited Guru Arjan earlier, at Goindval, in November, 1598 and besought him for spiritual guidance. At the Guru’s instance, the Emperor remitted 10 to 12 percent of the land revenue in the Punjab.

Guru Arjan was an unusually gifted and prolific poet. Over one-third of the Adi Granth consists of his own utterances. They comprise more than two thousand verses. These are in part philosophical, enshrining his vision of the Absolute, the unattributed and the transcendental Brahman as also of God the Beloved. The deeper secrets of the self, the immortal divine spark lodged in the tenement of the flesh and of the immutable moral law regulating the individual life no less than the universe, find repeated expression in his compositions. Alternating with these is his poetry of divine love, of the holy passion for the eternal which is the true yoga-pursuit in joining the finite person to the infinite. In this devotional passion all humanity, without distinction of caste or status, is viewed as one and equally worthy to touch the feet of the Lord. The Guru’s lines are resplendent with bejewelled phrases and his hymns full of haunting melody. The essential message of his hymns is meditation on nam. Deep feelings of universal compassion find expression in his compositions binding the entire universe in a mystical union of love, in a sanctum of experience where nothing so gross as hate and egoism enters. His famous Sukhmani (g.v.), the Psalm of Peace, which has been commented upon many times and tendered into several Indian and foreign languages, is a symmetrical structure of twenty-four cantos, each of eight five-couplet stanzas, preceding by a sloka or key-couplet expressing the motif of the entire canto following. In this composition Guru Arjan focussed on the concept of Brahmgiani (the enlightened soul). According to him, this enlightenment can be attained only through meditation on nam, the Lord’s Name, and through the Guru’s grace. In depicting the attributes of the Brahmgiani, he has compared him to the lotus flower which immersed in mud and water is yet pure and beautiful. Without ill will or enmity towards anyone, he is forever courageous and calm.

Guru Arjan’s compositions are in two strains from the point of view of the choice of vocabulary. In portions which are mainly philosophical in content, the character of the language is close to Braj Hindi. In those portions where the main inspiration is devotional or touching the human personality with compassion and that peace which no pain, sorrow or encounter with evil may disturb, he uses the western Punjabi idiom which before him had been employed in similar contexts by Guru Nanak Dev Ji. In a few of his hymns he has employed the current terminology of popular Islam in order to emphasize tolerance and inter-religious goodwill. A few of his compositions, like Guru Nanak’s before him, are couched in the Prakrit idiom called Sahaskriti or Gatha.

Guru Arjan’s many-sided learnings witnessed in his own compositions as well in the creation of the Holy volume and his commentary on the work of the bhaktas whose compositions he included in Adi Granth.

In the time of Guru Arjan, the Sikh faith gained a large number of adherents. On the testimony of a contemporary Persian source, the Dabistan-i-Mazahib, “during the time of each Mahal (Guru) the Sikhs increased till in the reign of Guru Arjan Mall they became numerous and there were not many cities in the inhabited countries where some Sikhs were not to be found.”

Guru Arjan’s martyrdom, had far-reaching consequences in the history of Sikhism and of the Punjab, occurred on Jeth sudi 4, 1663 Bk/30 May, 1606, after a period of imprisonment and torture. The scene of the Guru’s torture was a platform outside the Fort of Lahore near the river Ravi. In the eighteenth century a shrine, Dehra Shaib, was erected on the spot where every year the day is marked by a vast concourse of pilgrims coming from all over the Sikh world. There are conflicting accounts of the circumstances leading to Guru Arjan’s death. A Sikh tradition places the responsibility on a Hindu Khartri official, Chandu, whose pride has been hurt when the Guru refused to accept his daughter as a wife for his son, Hargobind. However, although Chandu took his opportunity to add to the Guru’s suffering, it is hardly likely that he had the influence to cause it. The real cause was the attitude of the Emperor himself. Jahangir who succeeded Akbar on the throne of Delhi in 1605 was not as liberal and tolerant as his father. In his early years on the throne, he depended more on the orthodox section among his courtiers. This coterie was under the influence of Shaikh Ahmad of Sirhind (1569 - 1624), leader of the Naqshbandi order of the Sufis. The Sikhs were the first to bear the brunt of Jahangir’s malice. Jahangir felt especially alarmed at the growing influence of Guru Arjan. As he wrote in his Tuzk: “So many of the simple-minded Hindus, nay, many foolish Muslims too had been fascinated by the Guru’s ways and teaching. For many years the thought had been presenting itself to my mind that either I should put an end to this false traffic, or that he be brought into the fold of Islam.”

Within a few months of Jahangir’s succession, his son, Khusrau, rebelled against his father and, on his way to Lahore, met Guru Arjan at Goindval and sought his blessing. According to the Mahima Prakash, the Prince partook of the hospitality of the Guru ka Langar and resumed his journey the following morning. Nevertheless after the rebellion had been suppressed and Khusrau apprehended, Jahangir wreaked terrible vengeance on the people he suspected of having helped his son. Guru Arjan was heavily fined and on his refusal to pay the fine was arrested. To quote again from Jahangir’s memoirs: “I fully knew of his heresies, and I ordered that he should be brought into my presence, that his property be confiscated and that he should be put to death with torture.”

The Guru was taken to Lahore. For several days he was subjected to extreme physical torment. He was seated on red-hot iron plates and burning sand was poured over him. He was made to take a dip in boiling water. Mian Mir, the Guru’s Muslim friend, came to see him and offered to intercede on his behalf. But the Guru forbade him and enjoined him to find peace in God’s Will. The Guru was then taken to the Ravi. A dip in the river’s cold water was more than the blistered body could bear. Wrapped in meditation, the Guru peacefully passed away. As a contemporary Jesuit document - a letter written by Father Zerome Xavier - says, “In that way their good Pope died, overwhelmed by the sufferings, torments, and dishonours.” The man who derived the most satisfaction from the execution of Guru Arjan Dev was Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi Mujaddid-i-alf-i-Sani. In his letter, as quoted in the Maktubat-i-Imam-i-Rabbani, he expressed jubilation over “the execution of the accursed kafir of Goindval.”

Guru Arjan’s martyrdom marked the fulfilment of Guru Nanak’s religious and ethical injunctions. Personal piety must have a core of moral strength. A virtuous soul must be a courageous soul. Willingness to suffer trial for one’s convictions was a religious imperative. Guru Arjan’s life exemplified this principle. Of Guru Arjan’s personality and death, his kinsman and contemporary, the revered Sikh savant Bhai Gurdas wrote in his Varan, XXIV.23:

As fishes are at one with the waves of the river,

So was the Guru, immersed in the River that is the Lord:

As the moth merges itself at sight into the flame,

So was the Guru’s light merged with the Divine Light.

In the extremest hours of suffering he was aware of nothing but the Divine Word,

Like the deer who hears no sound but the ringing of the hunter’s bell.

Like the humming-bee who is wrapped inside the lotus,

He passed the night of his life as in a casket of bliss;

Never did he forget to utter the Lord’s word, even as the chatrik fails never to utter its cry;

To the man of God joy is the fruit of devotion and meditation with equanimity in holy company.

May I be a sacrifice unto this Guru Arjan.

Guru Arjan was succeeded on the spiritual throne by his son, Hargobind Ji.


1. Ganda Singh, Guru Arjan’s Martyrdom Reinterpreted. Patiala, 1969

2. Macauliffe, Max Arthur, The Sikh Religion. Oxford, 1909.

3. Gunindar Kaur, The Guru Granth Sahib: Its Physics and Metaphysics. Delhi, 1981.

4. Teja Singh, Psalm of Peace. Bombay, 1937.

5. Jodh Singh, Bhai, Sri Kartarpur Bir de Darshan. Patiala, 1968.

6. Satibir Singh, Partakh Hari. Jalandhar, 1977.

7. Suri, Kartar Singh, Guru Arjan Dev te Sant Dadu Dial. Chandigarh, 1969.

Courtesy The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism - Panjabi University, Patiala (1992)

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Guru Granth Sahib

The History, Arrangements and Text

Dr. S.S. Kapoor, Director Principal

Khalsa College, London

Vice Chancellor, Sikh University, London, England

The Authorship

The manuscript of the Sikh Gurus’ hymns contained in Guru Granth were handed down by Guru Nanak Dev Ji to Guru Angad: by Guru Angad to Guru Amardas and by Guru Amardas to Guru Ramdas. Guru Amardas compiled the first Granth (book) of the hymns. Guru Arjan Dev Ji compiled the first edition of the Granth, as we know it today. He started the preparation of the Granth in August, 1601, and completed it in August, 1604. The scribe of the Granth was Bhai Gurdas, an uncle of Guru Arjan. The place of compilation of the Granth is Ramsar (Amritsar). Guru Gobind Singh compiled the second edition of the Granth in 1706 at Dam Dama Sahib. The scribe was Bhai Mani Singh, a classmate of Guru Gobind Singh Ji.

The Guruship

Guru Gobind Singh bestowed upon the Granth the Guruship at Nanded in 1708. Munshi Sant Singh, author of the Sikh history, composed the most popular verse in 1865 which a Sikh recites daily after his prayer.

“All community should recognize Guru Granth as the Guru.

All obey the commandments contained therein.

Recognize the Granth as the visible body of the Guru.

The Sikh who wishes to meet me should find me there.”

The History

The first (original) book signed and sealed by Guru Arjan Dev Ji was installed in the Harmandir (now known as Golden Temple) on Diwali, 30th August, 1604. Bhai Buddha, a devout Sikh who lived during the life of Guru Nanak to Guru Hargobind, was appointed the first high priest of the temple. The copy of the Granth remained in the possession of the Sikhs until 1644 when it was stolen from the house of Guru Hargobind by his grandson Dhirmal. In about 1674 it was recovered by force from his possession by the Sikhs, but on the specific instructions of Guru Tegh Bahadur it was returned to him. No historical account of this volume is found for the next 175 years. In 1849, following the annexation of Punjab by the British the copy was found by the British in the custody of the Lahore court. A battle to get it back was fought between Sodhi Sadhu Singh, a descendent of Dhirmal and the Sikh Organizations. In 1850 by the orders of the court the copy with its golden stand was restored to Sodhi Sadhu Singh, who later got a copy made of this Granth and presented it to Queen Victoria. This copy can be viewed at the India Office Library, London. The original manuscript is still in possession of Sodhis and is kept in a private house in Kartarpur. A copy of the (original) Granth was also made by Bhai Banno, a devout Sikh of Guru Arjan Dev’s times, in 1604. He got the Granth copied on the way to Lahore for binding purposes. A few Shabads (hymns) which Guru Arjan Dev had struck out from the original manuscript were left in this copy by Bhai Banno. Guru Arjan Dev declared this copy to be a KHARI-BIR (a forbidden copy). This copy at present is with the descendants of Bhai Banno in the village Mangat, district Gurjrat Pakistan. The second (original) Granth signed by Guru Gobind Singh was taken to Kabul by Ahmed Shah Abdali in 1762. Four copies of this Granth were made by Baba Deep Singh. Later many more handwritten copies were prepared. Some of these copies can be found in Harimandir Sahib, Akal Takhat Sahib, Patna Sahib, Hazur Sahib, Bangladesh Sikh temple at Decca and other Sikh temples. The Granth was subject matter of great concern to both Hindus and Muslims. Repeatedly, complaints were filed in the Mughal courts to ban its publication and use. In 1605, Emperor Akbar summoned a copy of the Granth for investigation while he was camping at Batala. He examined the Granth very thoroughly and rather read if for its divinity. He summoned and punished those who had maliciously complained to him and made an offering of 51 gold coins as a token of respect to the Granth. In the times of Emperor Aurangzeb another complaint against the publication of the Granth was filed by the enemies of the house of Guru Nanak. This time Guru Har Rai sent his older son Ram Rai to defend the case. Ram Rai was taken over by the splendour and exuberance of the Mughal court and dared to change certain words recorded in the Granth. By this blasphemous act, he might have pleased the Mughal rulers but he had the anguish of his father who ordered him not to return to Guru’s house and never to see him again.

The other attacks on the sanctity of the Granth and its language were made by the Arya Samaj leader Swami

Dayanand and later by the breakaway Nirankari leader Baba Gurbachan Singh and Eurocentric Sikh researchers such as Trump, McLeod and his “role dancing disciples”. (Editor)

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