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Guru Nanak, the First Guru of the Sikhs

Never before had Punjab seen a leader more popular than Guru Nanak. People from various communities were impressed with the teachings of Guru Nanak. The unstable political climate of the fifteenth century further encouraged people from different backgrounds to recognize the importance of the "there is no Hindu, there is no Mussalman" concept preached by Guru Nanak. This unifying ideal gave birth to a Punjabi Consciousness that naturally evolved into Punjabi Nationalism.

Guru Nanak and Sikhism

Role of the Guru: The wandering deer, ignorant of hunters, is poached because of an aromatic kasturi in its navel. All human beings have a hidden goodness within them, like a pearl within an oyster. The chief task of the Guru is to make men aware of this treasure within them and help unlock the jewel box. Guru Nanak believed that this goodness should be brought out in a gentle and gradual manner. Ascetic austerity, penances, celibacy, etc. had no place in the philosophy of Guru Nanak. The objective is to purify oneself while leading a normal life. Purity is achieved by inculcating behavior such as righteous conduct, practice of charity, etc.

Casteless Society: The Bhaktas paid only lip service to the idea of having a casteless society. On the other hand, Guru Nanak took strong steps to break the viscious hold of caste such as by starting a system of community kitchens where all followers were encouraged to eat together irrespective of their caste or social status.

Mission of Guru Nanak
(Five Jewels of the [Spirit] Realm)

Let your life be one of (i) praise of the Word (naam), (ii) charity (daan), (iii) ablution (isnaan), (iv) service (seva), and (v) prayer (simran) . Here are some verses of Guru Nanak in praise of his Creator:

Guru Nanak in praise of his Creator:
There is One God.
He is the supreme truth.
He, the Creator,
Is without fear and without hate.
He, the Omnipresent,
Prevades the universe.
He is not born,
Nor does He die to be born again.
By His grace shalt thou worship Him.

Before time itself
There was truth.
When time began to run its course
He was the truth.
Even now, He is the truth
And evermore shall truth prevail.
(Japji)

One of the Names of God is Truth:
Truth above all,
Above truth, truthful conduct.
{Guru Nanak)

Guru Nanak was a strict Monotheist.
Even though the Bhaktas believed in the unity of God, Guru Nanak disagreed with their belief in the reincarnations of God. Guru Nanak said: "Since God is infinite, He cannot die to be reincarnated. Since the human form is subject to decay and death, how can God take a human form?" Since God is Truth, it is important for a good sikh to always speak the truth. The practice of deception and untruth is ungodly.

Who is a Good Sikh?
A good sikh must believe in One God
as Omnipotent and Omniscient.
He must not harm fellow human beings.
He must not lie, cheat, fornicate,
or trespass on another person's property
because such behavior does not confirm to
the truth that is God.
(From the philosophy of Guru Nanak):

Be of Impurities Free:
Religion lieth not in the patched coat the yogi wears,
Not in the staff he bears,
Nor in the ashes on his body.
Religion lieth not in the rings in the ears,
Not in a shaven head,
Nor in the blowing of the conch shell.
If thou must the path of true religion see,
Among the world's impurities, be of impurities free.
From Suhi, Guru Nanak.

Guru Angad (1504 to 1552)

Guru Nanak's key disciple Bhai Bhudda put a saffron mark on the forehead of Bhai Lehna thereby proclaiming him as the second Guru, Guru Angad. Before joining the sikh community at Kartarpur, Lehna was a devout hindu. Lehna of Khadur had a following of his own whom he gradually brought into the sikh fold after becoming the second Guru.

In carrying forward the work of Guru Nanak, Guru Angad opened more centres of Sikhism where free langar (food) was served. The langar expenses were met through the offering of the devotees. As the number of sikh devotees increased, a professional system for the collection of donations was established at these centres.

Guru Angad ensured that at each Sikh centre of learning, a copy of the hymns of Guru Nanak was installed. Guru Angad formed a new script (named Gurmukhi) that was based on the letters of existing scripts so that it would be easy to read and understand by diverse communities. Guru Angad compiled the hymns of Guru Nanak into the Gurmukhi script and this laid the foundation for the sacred writings of the Sikhs. Now the Sikhs had their own script (Gurmukhi) and their own scripture (writings of the Guru). In this way, the sikhs began to emerge as a distinct community that was separate from the hindus and the mussalmans.

Guru Angad was an ardent promoter of physical fitness. Every sikh community centre had an attached wrestling arena. Due to this tradition, the Gurus who came later were easily able to transform the able-bodied sikh disciples into troops of soldiers to fight against the armies of oppressive rulers.

Guru Angad chose his disciple Amar Das to succeed as the third Guru of the sikhs. Amar Das, a Khatri by caste, was seventy-three years old when he became the third Guru of the sikhs.

It is interesting to note that both the Gurus, prior to Guru Amar Das, had sons but the sons were not chosen to succeed as Gurus. Each Guru chose a disciple to succeed as the next Guru based upon the suitability for the post rather than inheritance. This shows the built-in secular nature of the sikh community as it evolved into a new religion under the Gurus.

Guru Amar Das [1479 to 1574]

Guru Amar Das had the firm support of the ruling Emperor, Emperor Akbar, and this was one of the reasons why the size of Sikh community expanded exponentially in spite of the opposition faced from the hindu brahmins who were not in favour of the large number of hindus converting to sikhism. Amar Das, born in Goindwal, was originally a devout hindu who was known for his kind and pious disposition even prior to becoming a sikh. Guru Amar Das introduced a number of reforms that aroused the hostility of the hindu brahmin community. Once the hindu brahmins started to view sikhism as a threat to their way of life, they began to persecute the sikhs. The brahmins even approached Emperor Akbar who refused to help them because he was satisfied with the good work of the sikh Gurus. As a consequence, the determined hindu brahmins started to bribe local town officials in exchange for harassing the sikhs. This was the beginning of organized oppression of the Sikhs that compelled them to take up arms in self defence.

Guru Amar Das is known for making langar an integral part of the Sikh faith. Whosoever wanted to meet him had to first accept his hospitality of sharing langar with the sikh disciples. Thousands of converts were seeking guidance of the Guru. Therefore, Guru Amar Das increased the number of Manjis (parishes of the sikh community) to twenty-two. Each such sikh parish was under a head (masand) that was fully conversant with the sikh faith and had the ability to organize worship. Guru Amar Das added his own hymns to the collection of hymns of the previous Gurus (Guru Nanak and Guru Angad). Hymns of hindu Bhaktas whose teachings were in line with the faith of Guru Nanak were also included in the emerging sacred scripture of the sikhs. The masses did not understand the sanskrit texts of the hindus and the arabic text of the muslims. Guru Amar Das ensured that the sacred collection of hymns being compiled for the sikh disciples was written in Punjabi, a language well understood by a majority of the people of Punjab.

Key changes introduced by Guru Amar Das
  • A day was fixed for the annual gathering of the sikhs. Guru Amar Das sanctified a well at Goindwal and fixed a day in the month of Baisakh (first month in the hindu calendar) for the annual gathering. This day is now known as Baisakhi and comes in late spring.

  • The chanting of sanskrit slokas at major occasions (births, death, etc.) and ceremonies would be replaced by the recitation of the hymns of the Gurus.

  • The practice of purdah (exclusion of women) was discouraged.

  • Monogamy was encouraged.

  • Intercaste alliances and re-marriage of widows was encouraged.

  • The practice of Sati (burnig of a widow on the funeral pyres of her husband) was strictly forbidden.

The sermons of Guru Amar Das were simple and direct due to which he was a popular teacher. The works of Guru Amar Das are also applauded in the Adi Granth:

He made divine knowledge his steed and chastity his saddle.
On the bar of truth he strung the arrow of God's praise.
In the age of utter darkness, he rose like the Sun.
He sowed the seed of truth and reaped its fruit.

Guru Ram Das [1534 to 1581]

Guru Amar Das lived to the age of ninety-five. Even though Guru Amar Das had sons, he chose his son-in-law Ram Das to become the next Guru in keeping with the secular tradition (decision based on suitability for the post rather than inheritance) of selecting the next Guru.

Guru Ram Das had been a key part of the sikh parishes for almost forty years before being appointed as their head - fourth Guru of the sikhs. Emperor Akbar had granted a site to the wife of Ram Das. Ram Das built a small artificial lake at this site. Soon after being appointed as the next Guru, he left Goindwal to live alongside the lake. Guru Ram Das started building a town around this body of water. This town was named as Ram Das Pura. In the future, this town became the religious capital (Amritsar) of the Sikhs. Guru Ram Das encouraged businesses to grow in his town and with the help of revenue generated he expanded the activities of the sikh parishes to distant parts of India. The hymns composed by Guru Ram Das were also incorporated into the sacred writings of the sikhs.

Arjun Mal was the youngest of the three sons of Guru Ram Das and considered most suitable to suceed as the next Guru. Towards the end of his life, Guru Ram Das solemnized Arjun Mal through Bhai Buddha as the fifth Guru of the sikhs.

Guru Arjun [1563 to 1606]

Guru Arjun always had the support of Baba Buddha and Bhai Gurdas and this made it easier for him to face any resistance in functioning as the fifth Guru of the Sikhs. The first major task of Guru Arjun was to complete the building of the Temple of God, or HariMandir. Guru Arjun invited Mian Mir, a famous Sufi saint of Lahore, to lay the foundation stone of Harimandir. This temple was designed to be symbolic of the new faith, Sikhism. Typically a hindu temple is built at a level higher than the surrounding land but Guru Arjun built the Harimandir at below ground level that required the lowest (lowest from amongst the four castes of hinduism) to go even lower before entering the temple. Whereas a hindu temple has only one entrance door, the Harimandir was designed to be open on all four sides (four entrances) symbolising that the temple doors were open to all who wished to enter. At that time, the lower castes could not enter a hindu temple but now the Harimandir was open to all who wished to worship God. Money for building the temple was raised with financial assistance from the Sikhs who were asked to donate a tenth part of their income for charitable purposes. After the temple was completed, the tank surrounding it was filled with water. The small town grew into a city and became a commercial hub also. After the Harimandir was completed, the town was given a new name - Amritsar (pool of nectar).

Four Towns established by Guru Arjun
  1. Amritsar - City of the Golden Temple, also known as Darbar Sahib and Harimandir, established by Guru Arjun.
  2. Taran Taraan - Guru Arjun had a tank dug about eleven miles south of Amritsar that he blessed as Taran Taraan (Pool of Salvation.) This pool earned the reputation of having healing properties, particularly for those afflicted with leprosy.
  3. Kartarpur - Guru Arjun raised this town in the Jalandhar Doab region.
  4. Sri Hargobindpur - Guru Arjun also established a town on the banks of river Beas near Lahore. He named this town after his son, Hargobind.
Guru Granth Sahib
(The Sacred Writings of the Sikhs compiled by Guru Arjun)

Around 1595 AD, Guru Arjun undertook the task of making an authentic compilation of the writings of the four Gurus who had preceded him. With the help of Mohan (son of Guru Amar Das) the writings of the first three Gurus was collected. Contributions from Hindu and Muslim sects were welcomed for consideration into the final compilation. After such groundwork, Guru Arjun settled near the Ramsar Tank that was away from the hustle and bustle of the city of Amritsar and devoted himself to the task of consolidating the writings of the Gurus into a sacred anthology. The contribution of Guru Arjun is the largest in this sacred anthology. Bhai Gurudas helped with the writing down of the holy compilation that came to be known as the Guru Granth Sahib.

By August 1604 the work of compilation was complete and the Granth Sahib (holy compilation) was formally installed at the Golden Temple (Darbar Sahib / Harimandir) in Amritsar. Bhai Buddha was appointed as the first public reader (Granthi) of the Granth Sahib. Here is a brief note on the Granth:

  • The Granth contained a representation of the entire faith of Guru Nanak (founder of Sikhism).

  • The Granth contained the writings of all the five Sikh Gurus.

  • The Granth contained a selection of compositions from both hindu and muslim saints from across parts of the northern Indian sub-continent.

  • The hymns within the Granth have a high poetic order. The language of the Granth was designed to be intelligible to the vast majority of the people of Punjab. The spiritual and ethical principles are revealed in a simple and direct manner.

  • The "Guru Granth Sahib" became the most powerful factor in spreading the teachings of the Gurus amongst the masses.

  • At the end in the last hymn, Guru Arjun states that in this vessel you will find three things - truth, peace and contemplation. This vessel also contains the "Name of the Master," the nectar that is the uplifter of all mankind.

Guru Hargobind [1595 to 1644 AD] - Sixth Guru

Guru Arjun (the fifth Guru) died while in prison under the reign of emperor Jehangir. This event shocked the Sikhs who wanted to avenge the death of their Guru. This readiness to avenge the murder of their Guru was the beginning of the militarisation of the Sikh community who would have to deal with the imperial Mughal army in order to protect their faith.

Raising of Soldiers under Guru Hargobind

The eleven year old Hargobind took the seat of his father Guru Arjun with two swords girded around his waist. One sword symbolized spiritual power while the other temporal. He said: "The sword belt shall be my rosary and my turban shall bear the emblem of royalty". Henceforth offerings of arms and horses were also welcomed. Greater efforts were put into training and raising soldiers than ever before.

Guru Hargobind had the support of veterans Bhai Buddha and Gurudas. He built Lohgarh (castle of steel) in Amritsar. He built the Akal Takht (throne of the Timeless God) in the Harimandir Complex.

As change in the nature of the Sikh Organization reached emperor Jehangir, he decided to impose the pending fine of Guru Arjun on his son . As a result, Guru Hargobind was imprisoned at Gwalior for about a year. Guru Hargobind resumed the building of military strength soon after his release but in a more discreet manner. He raised a private army that included Pathan mercenaries.

In the fifteen year period since his release from Gwalior prison and the death of Jehangir in 1627, Guru Hargobind was able to strengthen and consolidate his hold on the now widespread Sikh community. His travels included Punjab, parts of Uttar Pradesh and Kashmir. He built temples and appointed missionaries to help spread Sikhism wherever he went. The Raja of Bilaspur gifted him land at the foothills of the Himalayas near river Sutlej. Here Guru Hargobind built a retreat that he named Kiratpur (abode of praise).

Shah Jahan

Shah Jahan succeeded Jehangir as emperor in 1627 AD. Under Shah Jahan the martial conflicts with the Mughal forces only increased further. In order to face the might of the enormous Mughal army, the Guru shifted his headquarters to Kiratpur where he spent the remainder of his life.

Under Guru Hargobind the Sikhs realized that peaceful propogation was not enough to defend their faith and force of arms was necessary. Guru Hargobind infused confidence into the Punjabis so that the mighty Mughal forces could be challenged. The massands had a particularly difficult time in training new hindu recruits because they had to deal with a superstition-ridden community.

The Ten Sikh Gurus
  1. Guru Nanak - 1469 to 1539.
  2. Guru Angad - 1504 to 1552.
  3. Guru Amar Das - 1479 to 1574.
  4. Guru Ram Das - 1534 to 1581.
  5. Guru Arjun - 1563 to 1606.
  6. Guru Hargobind - 1595 to 1644.
  7. Guru Hari Rai - 1630 to 1661.
  8. Guru Hari Krishan - 1656 to 1664.
  9. Guru Tegh Bahadur - 1621 to 1675.
  10. Guru Gobind Singh - 1666 to 1708.

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