General Category: History. (Standalone Page for the Sikh Disciples of Guru Nanak)

Formation of the Sikh Community

The Disciples of Guru Nanak

An Introduction to the Successors of Guru Nanak

Sikh Disciples who became Gurus

The Jats, as farmers, love their land and will defend their area at any cost. The Jats, originally from the Aryan stock, entered the fertile plains of Punjab from the harsh mountainous terrain of the north looking for greener pastures. The Jats of Punjab became a core part of the Sikh community that was easily organized into martial troops under the Gurus to fight off the foreign invaders. In this post, history behind the smooth and rough hindu-muslim relationship is discussed in greater details because these events were responsible for the birth of Sikhism.

Trade between Arabia and India

The monsoon birds flying into India from East Africa were a source of joy for the people of the Western Ghats because they indicated arrival of the much awaited rains, the start of the monsoon season. Along with the monsoons, the people of south India were eagerly awaiting another arrival, the Arabian Dhows (sailboats), an event perhaps as old as the monsoon itself. Before the onset of the monsoons, the Arab traders would load their boats (dhows) with dates, frankincense, herbs and other products grown in their oases, take advantage of the sea breeze, and reach the Indian shores just before the arrival of the monsoon rains. Over the years, the Arab traders were able to form a mutually beneficial relationship with the merchant princes of India. Some of the Arab traders married Indian women and permanently settled down in India. A new Indo-Arabian community came into being. The muslims were allowed to build mosques. This peaceful spread of Islam started to move from the south to the northern parts of India. Around 630 AD there were several scattered settlements of Arab Muslims in Western India, including key coastal regions such as Malabar.

What destroyed the age-old healthy Hindu-Muslim relationship in India?

971 to 1030 AD invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni:
Towards the end of 600 AD, muslim invaders started entering Northern India through Baluchistan and Sindh. The invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni (971 to 1030) and subsequent invasions that followed on a regular basis for many years, ravaged Northern India where hindu temples were also destroyed. As a result, the muslims began to be looked upon as foreign invaders who had to be stopped. The peaceful conversions of hindus to muslims through marriage, etc. came to a halt. The hindus started to look upon the muslims as their enemies.

Shankara's call to return to Vedas and Monotheism

The solid and peaceful relationship between the hindus and muslims that had formed because of the time immemorial trade between Arabia and India was destroyed in a short period because of invasions by certain muslim rulers who came from the north.
Shankara (800 AD):
Shankara, a brahmin of Malabar, attempted to provide an answer to the arguments of the muslim conquerors by calling for a return to the Vedas (holy scripture of the hindus). The hinduism of Shankara was an uncompromised monotheism and a rejection of idolatory. The God of Shankara was One, Indefinable, and All-pervasive.

O Lord, pardon my three sins.
I have in contemplation clothed in form
Thee who art formless.
I have in praise described Thee who art ineffable,
And in visiting temples I have ignored Thine Omnipresence.

Ramanuja and the Bhakti Movement

Ramanuja (1016 to 1137 AD):
Ramanuja advocated the path of Bhakti (devotion) recommended many centuries ago by the Bhagavad Gita as the best way to salvation. Ramanuja travelled extensively through northern India and left behind a large number of disciples to propogate his teachings. The Alvar and Adyar saints played a key role in influencing the Bhakti Movement. Ramananda popularized the Bhakti Movement in Northern India. Ramananda permitted the lower caste hindus and muslims to become his followers.

Key Beliefs of the Bhaktas
  • God is One though He cannot be described.

  • God is the only reality and the rest is maya (illusion).

  • The best way to serve God is absolute submission to His will.

  • The way to approach God is through meditation and the chanting of hymns.

  • The role of a Guru is important for spiritual guidance.

Kabir (1440 to 1518 AD)

Kabir was the primary person responsible for spreading the message of Bhakti across the entire Indo-Gangetic plain. Kabir who described himself as the child of Rama and Allah played a major part in restoring the broken relationship between the hindus and the muslims. Kabir though born a muslim found no difficulty in worshipping as a hindu. Kabir believed that there could be only One God and he refused to bow before idols. The caste system was not divinely ordained because all human beings were born equal.

From the Words of Kabir:
  • The hindu goes to the temple and the mussalman to the mosque but Kabir goes where both are known. Kabir has taken the higher path abandoning the custom of the two.

  • I am neither a hindu nor a mussalman. I am a body made of five elements where the Unknown plays. Mecca has verily become Kasi, and Rama has become Rahim.

The Sufi Movement

Not many of the Bhaktas practised what they preached. They continued to worship stone idols. Their acceptance of equality was often only symbolic such as by an occasional acceptance of food from the hands of a low caste. Along with the scholars of hinduism who had started the Bhakti movement, some of the muslim preachers also wanted to re-establish the hindu-muslim bond that had been harmed because of the multiple invasions by muslim kings. Such persons of muslim faith studied multiple languages, cultures and religions. They learnt about Christianity, Buddhism and Greek philosophies. These men were known as the Sufis. Around the 15th century some of the popular Sufis were: Chishti, Qadiri, Suhrawardi, and Naqshbandi. As a result of the Sufi movement, a large number of hindus entered into the muslim fold. As a consequence of the Sufi Movement, the muslims of India came closer to the hindus. This can be observed in the similarity of food, language, dress, music, etc. between the hindus and sufi muslims even today. Everything became identical except the place of worship. Someone needed to bridge the gap between the temple and the mosque. The arrival of Sikhism was the next step in the continued effort to encourage true spirituality and do away with the divisive side-effects of organized religion.

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.

Guru Nanak on Impurity:
Once we say: This is pure, this clean,
See that in all things there is life unseen.
There are worms in wood and cowdung cakes,
There is life in the corn ground into bread.
There is life in the water which makes it green.
How then be clean when impurity is over the kitchen spread?

Impurity of the heart is greed,
Of tongue, untruth,
Impurity of the eye is coveting
Another's wealth, his wife, her comeliness.
Impurity of the ears is listening to calumny.

There is no doubt that Guru Nanak was a strict monotheist. Therefore, his core values were based on Islam, "where Islam means submission to the will of God", as per the holy Quran.

Even though Guru Nanak used several names for God, he believed that the power that is God cannot be defined because God is formless. Here are some verses on the formless nature of God:

Thou hast a million eyes, yet no eye hast Thou.
Thou hast a million forms, yet no form hast Thou.
Thou hast a million feet, yet no feet hast Thou.
Thou art without odour, yet millions of odours emanate from Thee.
With such charms, O Lord, hast Thou bewitchd me.
Thy light prevades everywhere.

Worship of the Name of God: According to Guru Nanak, the greatest of all evils resides is the ego but this same EGO also carries within it the seed of salvation. This seed can be nurtured by worshipping God through continuous repetition of the name of God. Once the ego is conquered, the other five sins (lust, anger, greed, attachment and pride) are easily corrected. The restless mind is stilled and the tenth gate is opened where one receives a vision of God and merges one's light with the eternal light. (The body has only nine natural openings.)

I have no miracles, except the name of God, said Guru Nanak:
As hands or feet besmirched with slime,
Water washes white;
As garments dark with grime,
Rinsed with soap are made light;
So when sin soils the soul
The Name alone shall make it whole.

Words do not the saint or sinner make.
Action alone is written in the book of fate.
What we sow that alone we take;
O Nanak, be saved or forever transmigrate.

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.

Influence of the Mughal Rule on Guru Nanak

The atrocities witnessed during the Mughal rule make it obvious that some of the Mughal Emperors did not sufficiently understand the true value of the holy Quran. A major role of the teachings of Guru Nanak, continued through his disciples, was to help in bringing out the essential aspects of the previous Scripture so that even a commoner may have the opportunity to understand the Word of God including what appeared as cloudy to the aristocracy of those days.

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 thr 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.

Emperor Akbar's support for Sikhism

When Bhai Buddha and Gurudas brought a copy of the Granth's manuscript before Akbar and read out some hymns, the emperor was impressed. Akbar found the writings to be in tune with Islam and made an offering of fifty-one gold mohurs to the sacred manuscript. Emperor Akbar also gave robes of honour to Guru Arjun, Bhai Gurudas and Baba Buddha who were behind the holy compilation.

Akbar's admiration for the Guru Granth Sahib was an important factor in the building of the Sikh community. The number of sikhs increased greatly in the four towns established by Guru Arjun. The popularity of the Guru was such that he came to be addressed as the true emperor (Saccha Padshah).

Emperor Jehangir's disapproval of Sikhism

After the death of Akbar, under the new Emperor Jehangir, the policy of the state towards the Sikhs started to reverse. The insecure Jehangir disapproved of the growing popularity of Guru Arjun who was being addressed as the true emperor by his Sikh followers. Jehangir was looking for an excuse to put an end to the rising Sikh community under Guru Arjun.

The Khusrau Incident

When Khusrau rebelled against his father Jehangir, he approached Guru Arjun for blessings and help. Guru Arjun did not offer any military support but when the rebellion was suppressed Jehangir wreaked vengeance on the people suspected of helping his son Khusrau in the rebellion. When Guru Arjun refused to pay a heavy fine imposed on him and also refused to admit the charge of treason, he was arrested and sentenced to death. While in prison, Guru Arjun requested Bhai Buddha to declare his eleven year old son Hargobind as the next (6th) Guru of the Sikhs. On 30-May-1606, after a routine torture, the Guru was allowed to wash himself in the river Ravi that flowed alongside the prison. The Guru entered the stream and the swift current bore him beyond the reach of his tormentors.

The most popular composition of Guru Arjun is the Sukhmani (psalm of peace). Here he wrote: "Of all creeds the sovereign creed is to pray to God and do a goodly deed." In the twenty-five years of Guru Arjun's ministry, the seed sown by Guru Nanak blossomed into its fullness. During the time of Guru Arjun, the Sikhs realized that they were neither hindus nor muslims but a new community. Even though a third community (Sikhs) started to emerge, Guru Arjun did succeed in bringing together the Hindus and the Muslims by the creation of a unique scripture and the raising of a new temple whose foundation was laid by a Muslim saint and whose superstructure was built by the Hindus and the Sikhs.

This post has covered the history of the first five Sikh Gurus. Here is a list of all the ten Gurus of the Sikh faith:

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.

A future post will cover the history of the next five Sikh Gurus.