Guru Arjan Dev ji (1563-1606)

Artist Bodh Rai's immpression of  Sri Guru Arjan Dev  ji

Guru Arjun's multifarious activities, apart from making a very major contribution to the organisation of the mission, demonstrate, as laid down by Guru Nanak, that no field of life, whether temporal, social or political, is excluded for the operation of a mystic. Slowly but surely the movement came out with a distinct identity of its own and with clear-cut religious- and socio-political facets.

Guru Arjan Dev was the youngest son of Guru Ram Das and Mata Bhani. He was born at Goindwal on April 15, 1563. In 1579 Guru Arjan was eventually married to Ganga Devi daughter of Krishan Chand in 1579.

The Guru laid the foundation of the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in the middle of the tank of Amritsar. All of the Sikhs desired that it should be the tallest building in the new town. Guru Arjan Dev however felt otherwise. He reminded his followers that humility should be a great virtue. The temple was therefore built on as low an elevation as possible. To counter the Muslim belief that God's House is in the west and the Hindu belief that it is in the east where the sun rises, the Harmandir Sahib had entrances on all four sides. Guru Arjan Dev exclaimed; "My faith is for the people of all castes and all creeds from whichever direction they come and to whichever direction they bow."

His system of voluntary offerings for the common cause and the sharing of one's earnings was made regular. Every Sikh was supposed to contribute 10% of his income to the common fund maintained by the Guru. The representatives of the Guru collected contributions from their respective areas and sent them to the common treasury.

The construction of the temple at Amritsar was started by the Guru and its foundation stone was laid by the reputed Muslim Sufi Saint, Mian Mir. He built another tank and temple at Taran Taran. These temples had doors on all sides, indicating that these were open to all castes and communities.

The Guru had a well-organised central establishment which included the maintenance of a contingent of horses and elephants. He encouraged his followers to trade in horses from Central Asia. For his personal maintenance, the Guru also took up the trade. As such, the Sikhs became good horsemen and formed later the nucleus of military power. All these features were important developments because they were clear preparation for the military organisation that was to follow from the time of the Sixth Guru. It was in the lifetime of Guru Arjun that his son, Hargobind, started learning to wield the sword and hunting. Gurdwara Patshahi V at Lahore

In 1598, the Guru interceded on behalf of the local peasantry with Emperor Akbar to get the excessive levy of land revenue reduced. These activities of the Guru gave him a new status. It was at this time that the Guru came to be called by the Sikhs as Sacha Patshah (True Emperor). The Guru had come to guide, govern and influence the lives of the Sikhs both in the temporal and the spiritual fields. It was a significant development The organisation of the community, according to Gupta, became a state within a state.

An important step in the separate consolidation of the religion was the compilation of the Adi Granth as the sole and authentic scripture of the Sikhs. It has a significant feature. Besides the hymns of the five Gurus, it contains the hymns of Hindu and Muslim saints. The Adi Granth was formally installed at the Amritsar temple on the annual gathering of the Sikhs. From the very start it was recognised as the Sikh scripture. Emperor Akbar made an offering of 51 gold coins to the Adi Granth. Its installation at the only Sikh temple constructed then by the Guru and the appointment of the most venerated Sikh as its Granthi (minister) show that it was meant to be the exclusive scripture of the Sikhs and the embodiment of the Gurus system and thought In this way conjectures about links with the other systems or scriptures were set at rest for ever. This is an important step, especially when we find that in Guru Granth Sahib no status or sanctity has been given to any gods, goddesses or avatars.

This compilation is a landmark in the history of Sikhism. It is a clear testimony of the fact that the Guru took this vital step to emphasise that their message and mission were prophetic. This fact comes out in all its glaring singularity when we see that, in the entire religious history of man, no other prophet felt it essential to authenticate his message so as to secure its purity and exclude the possibility of interpolation and misinterpretation. In fact, in most cases the utterances of the prophets were compiled by their devotees long after their ministry. This authentication of the scripture by the Guru himself once and for all ensured its separate identity and purity. In the case of other prophets, their opponents can say that the prophets themselves never meant to declare any new truths, but their overzealous followers made it into a separate system not intended by the prophets. Nothing of that kind can be asserted about the Gurus and Guru Granth Sahib.

It is something very extraordinary that, in line with Guru Nanak's hymn that 'with the help of other God-conscious beings he would help every one to be a God-centred person', the Guru included in the Adi Granth hymns of twenty two Muslim and Hindu saints. It is a singular example of the Guru's sense of personal anonymity. He truly felt that in accomplishing this task he was working Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Tarntaran, got constructed by Guru Arjan Dev ji only as an agent of God's mission. We also find that contemporary saints like Mian Mir and Pir Budhu Shah, irrespective of religion and race, remained closely associated with the mission of the Gurus.

Owing to the growing religious and political influence of the Gurus, the Sikhs had got a clear consciousness of their religious and socio-political identity. Consequently, the position of the Gurus had naturally given rise to hostility, both in the religious and political quarters. Saikh Ahmad, the head of the Naqashbandt order at Sirhind and a leader of the revivalist movement of Islam in India, got upset at the influence of the Guru among men of both the communities. He had access to the court of Jahangir. But, probably the chief reason that upset the Emperor was that the Guru had blessed Khusro and helped him monetarily while the latter had rebelled against Jahangir. The local administration was naturally aware of the growing Sociopolitical strength and influence of the Guru. Chat this incident rankled in the mind of emperor Jahangir, is evident from his own statement recorded in his autobiography. He wrote that he had ordered the execution by torture of Guru Arjun unless he embraced Islam, because the Guru had raised aloft the standard of holiness and many Hindus and Muslims had foolishly become his followers. Prithi Chand and his son Meherban called themselves real gurus and Meherban glorified his father Prithia and discredited Guru Nanak's hymns. They were both plotting against Guru Arjan. Others who were against Guru were Sulahi Khan of Batala, Chandu Shah Khatri of Lahore, Sheikh Ahmad faruqi Sarhindi, Emperor Jahangir who was unlike his father Akbar and pretty much intolerant of other faiths.

Around the year 1590 Guru Arjan Dev decided to go on an extensive tour of Punjab accompanied by such trusted Sikhs as Bhai Gurdas and Bidhi Chand. He visited Khadur, Goindwal, Sarhali, Bhaini, Khanpur, Taran Taran, Lahore, Dera Baba Nanak, as well as Barath where he met the aged ascetic son of Guru Nanak, Baba Sri Chand. Guru Arjan Dev also purchased some land near Jullundur and laid the foundations of a new township called Kartarpur as well as digging a well called Ganga Sagar.

The Guru eventually returned to Amritsar to find his eldest brother Prithi Chand jealous as ever. With the Guru having no children as yet, Prithi Chand hoped that his own son Mehrban would be able to succeed Guru Arjan Dev as the next Guru. Guru Arjan in his humility asked his wife Ganga Devi; "If you need a boon, ask not me but a pious Sikh like Baba Buddha, the aged seer and devout disciple of Guru Nanak". She proceeded with a large entourage and much fanfare to Baba Buddha who lived in a jungle near Amritsar. There she presented him with many delicacies to eat. Baba Buddha resented this and refused to provide any blessings. Upon hearing what happened, Guru Arjan Dev told his wife to return this time on foot, with a simple meal prepared by herself. This time Baba Buddha was delighted and partook of the simple food. He prophesied; "A son will be born to thee who will crush the enemies of Nanak's house, just as I have crushed this piece of onion with my hand."

Soon thereafter Ganga Devi became pregnant. Prithi Chand meanwhile cultivated Sulhi Khan, a revenue officer of the Mughal court to raid Amritsar on the pretext of collecting a tribute. Guru Arjan Dev along with his family left Amritsar and settled at Wadali a few miles away. It was here that on June 14, 1595 that the Guru was blessed with a son, Hargobind. The love of a father for his son can be seen in the following lines:

"My True Guru is my Savior and Protector. Showering us with His Mercy and Grace, God extended His Hand, and saved Hargobind, who is now safe and secure. The fever is gone - God Himself eradicated it, and preserved the honor of His servant. I have obtained all blessings from the Saadh Sangat, the Company of the Holy; I am a sacrifice to the True Guru." (Guru Arjan Dev, Sorath, pg. 620)

Meanwhile Sulhi Khan upon hearing that both Guru Arjan Dev and his treasure were no longer in Amritsar put off his attack on the city. In Amritsar Prithi Chand tried to convince the Sikhs that he was the real Guru and not Arjan Dev. He only met with disappointment though, as the Sikhs continued to flock to see Guru Arjan Dev. Prithi Chand therefore concocted a plan to assassinate the Guru's only child Hargobind. He sent a wet-nurse with poison, got a snake charmer to release a snake near Hargobind, and on another attempt sent a servant with poison milk. All of these attempts failed with the perpetrators all publicly confessing that Prithi Chand had sent them.

"The poison had absolutely no harmful effect. But the wicked Brahmin died in pain. || 1 || The Supreme Lord God Himself has saved His humble servant. The sinner died through the Power of the Guru." (Guru Arjan Dev, Bhairon, pg. 1137)

Eventually a large delegation of Sikhs were able to convince the Guru to return to Amritsar.

Guru Arjan now started the training for his son Hargobind for the responsibilities which he would one day have to face. He had the young Hargobind not only trained in languages and religious philosophy, but also in riding, the use of weapons, astronomy, medicine, agriculture, public administration and the sciences. Baba Buddha was put in charge of the religious education of the young Hargobind, while a team of experts were employed for instruction in their areas of expertise. Guru Arjan Dev meanwhile kept quite busy attending to the spiritual needs of the large masses of Sikhs who came to see him daily. He would daily perform devotional music from the Harmandir Sahib, being a great instrumentalist and vocal singer.

A situation now arose which would require the Guru's complete attention. Reports came to the Guru that Prithi Chand was composing his own hymns and was passing them to the visiting Sikhs as the compositions of Guru Nanak as well as other Guru's. Others were also passing of their own compositions as the works of the Sikh Guru's. Guru Arjan Dev realized that if this situation was allowed to continue it would be the undermining of the Sikh religion. Having given the Sikhs a central place of worship, they now needed an authentic compilation of the hymns of their Guru's. Thus Guru Amar Das started collection the original verses of all the Guru's. He sent trusted Sikhs such as Bhai Piara, Bhai Gurdas and Baba Buddha across the country in search of original manuscripts. Guru Arjan Dev made trips to Goindwal, Khadur and Kartarpur to visit the families of the previous Guru's. Guru Arjan Dev collected original manuscripts of the Guru's from Mohan (son of Guru Amar Das), Datu (son of Guru Angad) as well as Sri Chand (son of Guru Nanak). Putting Baba Buddha in charge of the spiritual needs of the large number of pilgrims visiting Harmandir Sahib, Guru Arjan now pitched a tent by the side of Ramsar tank and started the arduous task of compiling the first edition of the Holy Guru Granth Sahib. Bhai Gurdas was entrusted as the Guru's scribe for the master copy. Unlike any other religious book in history, Guru Arjan Dev decided to also include the compositions of Hindu and Muslim saints which he considered consistent with the teachings of Sikhism and the Guru's. Guru Arjan Dev included the works of such Hindu Bhaktas as Kabir, Jaidev, Namdev, Dahnna, Ravidas, Pipa and Ramanand. The Guru also included the works of such Muslim divines as Farid, Mardana, Satta and Balwand, the Guru's minstrels, as well as several bards (Bhatts). Bhai Gurdas was invited by the Guru to include his own verses, but declined out of modesty.

The monumental task was finally completed. This first edition of the Guru Granth Sahib known at that time as Pothi Sahib was installed on a high pedestal within the Harmandir Sahib in August 1604. Guru Arjan Dev seated himself at a lower level and instructed all Sikhs to bow before it, not as an idol, but as the book of divine inspiration which instructed living men in the ways of God and dedicated secular life. The revered Baba Buddha was appointed the first Granthi (custodian) of the book. Guru Arjan Dev dictated that unlike the Hindu scriptures, the Pothi Sahib could be open to reading by anyone of any caste, creed or sex. This original copy is still in existence today.

A rich arrogant Hindu banker of Delhi called Chandu Shah tried to marry his daughter to Hargobind. But after discussing this with his followers, Guru Arjan Dev refused the match. Prithi Chand knew that Chandu Shah welded some influence with the imperial court. He used Chandu Shah's anger at being rejected to cause further trouble. Prithi Chand had Chandu Shah complain to the Emperor Akbar that the Guru had prepared a book which was derogatory in nature to Muslim's and Hindu's. Upon hearing this Akbar ordered the Guru to be brought before him along with the. Guru Arjan Dev sent the revered Baba Buddha and Bhai Gurdas to the Mughal court along with a copy of the Holy Granth. Akbar opened the Holy Book and the first hymn read out was;

"My God has breathed His Light into the dust. And so brought the world into being. He it is who created the sky, the earth, the waters and all vegetation. O man, whatever one sees, passes away. But the world usurps anothers due and is forgetful of God. It is the world of the animal, nay, of ghosts and goblins. It eats the forbidden fruit, usurping what belongs to another. Hold thy mind, O man, or God will burn thee in the fire of Hell. Thy benefactors, thy brothers, thy courts and kingdoms and thy homes. Are of no avil to thee, when seized thee the Angel of Death. My Lord, purest of the pure, knows all that is within thee. Nanak: pray thou to His Saints that they lead thee on the Truth Path." (Tilang)

Upon hearing this Akbar was satisfied as he had always looked upon the Sikh Gurus as social reformers and believed in the unity of God and the brotherhood of man. However Chandu Shah accused Bhai Gurdas of not really read the text but recited a hymn from memory. Akbar therefor got one Sahib Dyal who could read Gurmukhi to appear before the court and opened a page at random for him to read, he read the following;

"You don't see God who dwells in your heart. And you carry about an idol around your neck. A nonbeliever, you wander about churning water, And you die harassed in delusion. The idol you call God will drown with you. The ungrateful sinner. The boat will not ferry you across. Says Nanak, I met the Guru who led me to God. He who lives in water, earth, nether region, and firmament. " (Sulhi)

The Emperor now exclaimed; "Excepting love and devotion to God, I so far find neither praise nor blame to anyone in this Granth. It is a volume worthy of reverence." Not only this but Akbar wanted to offer Guru Arjan a suitable gift. Guru Arjan asked the Emperor to instead exempt the people of Punjab from the annual land revenue that year since their was a severe drought. Akbar graciously complied with the Guru's wishes, this greatly increased the Guru's popularity with the peasants.

On October 17, 1605 Akbar died and was succeeded by Jahangir as Emperor. Jahangir was a person of lax morals, pleasure loving and fond of drinking. He left much of the administration duties of running his kingdom to others. Because of his lax morals Jahangir set out to please the orthodox Muslim clergy which he knew did not approve of his actions, or the tolerant attitude that his father Akbar had previously displayed to other religions. Jahangir wrote the following in his memoirs called Tuzak-i-Jehangiri; "At Goindwal on the banks of the river Beas, lived a Hindu, Arjan by name, in the garb of a Pir or Sheikh. Thus, many innocent Hindus and even foolish and ignorant Muslims he brought into his fold who beat the drum noisily of his self-appointed prophethood. He was called Guru. From all sides, worshippers came to offer their homage to him and put full trust in his word. For three or four generations, they had warmed up this shop. For a long time I had harbored the wish that I should set aside this shop of falsehood or I should bring him into the fold of Islam." Jahangir further writes; "In these days, Khusro (Jahangir's rebel son) passed through this way. The foolish person resolved to call on him. Khusro halted for a time at this place and this man came to see him and discoursed with him on many matters and also applied with saffron on his forehead what the Hindus call kashkeh (tilak) and consider a good omen. When I heard this account personally, I knew about his false pretenses. So I ordered that he be brought into my presence, that his property be confiscated and his sons and other possessions be made over to Murtaza Khan and he be dealt with in accordance with the political and common law of the land."

When Guru Arjan received the summons to appear before Jahangir, he knew that it was not a good sign. The Guru declared that his son Hargobind should be installed as the next Guru. Prominent Sikhs gathered and revered Baba Buddha applied the saffron mark on Hargobind's forehead anointing him as Guru Hargobind.

Upon reaching Lahore, Jahangir demanded that Guru Arjan Dev revise the Holy Granth, removing all references to Islam and Hinduism. This of course the Guru refused to do. Since Jahangir was on his way to Kashmir, he asked Murtaza Khan to deal with the Guru.

Murtaza Khan immediately jailed the Guru, and ordered the Guru Arjan Dev to be tortured to death if he did not agree to remove the alleged derogatory references in the Holy Granth.

Prince Khusrau who was also son of Akbar and was contesting for throne was captured by Jahangir's men. This prince Khusrau was the son of Jodha Bai, daughter of Udai Singh of Jodhpur, since he was born to a Hindu mother, was disliked by the fanatics who wanted Prince Salim who was a 100% Sunni Muslim (as oppose to the popular Hindi movie Mughal-e-Azam, where Jahangir was shown as son of Hindu mother). Prince escaped and went to Guru Arjan. Guru Arjan was moved at the 13 years old Prince and gave him help with money and shelter. Salim succeded with the title of Jahangir. Jahangir hated all those who were in Akbar's good books. He summoned Guru to Lahore, Sikhs of lahore pleaded with Jahangir to let them collect the fine and pay to him to release Guru, but Jahangir refused. Jahangir appointed Murtaza Khan to confiscate the property of Guru and hand it over to state., apart from that a fine of 2 lakhs was also collected from the Sikhs. Guru was imprisoned at Lahore fort. He was chained to a post in an open place exposed to the sun from morning to evening in the months of May thru June. Below his feet a heap of sand was put which burnt like a furnace. Boiling water was poured on his naked body at intervals. His body was covered with blisters all over. In this agony Guru used to utter.

Tera Kiya Metha lage, naam padarath Nanak mange (whatever you ordain appears sweet.  I supplicate for the gift of name)

The Guru was ordered to be executed. In addition a fine of Rupees two lakhs was imposed on him. Some historians say that, as a measure of clemency at the intervention of Mian Mir, this fine was imposed in lieu of the sentence of death. The Sikhs offered to pay the fine themselves but the Guru forbade them to do so. He replied to the Emperor, "Whatever money I have is for the poor, the friendless and the stranger. If thou ask for money thou mayest take what I have; but if thou ask for it by way of fine, I shall not give thee even a Kaurz (penny)."'7 The Guru accepted death by torture and suffered the first great martyrdom. His sacrifice further steeled the faith of the community in the mission of the Gurus. Gupta, who considers the views of all other historians as relevant material, concludes that it was principally a political execution. Gurdwara Dehra Sahib, Lahore

The bore all of these brutalities with calm serenity, for five long days he was tortured. When the torturers found the Guru unresponsive to their torture they did not know what to do. On May 30, 1606 the Guru asked for a bath in the river Ravi by the side of the Mughal fort. Thousands of followers watched the Guru who could barely walk make his way to the river with tears in their eyes. His bare body was covered with blisters, Guru Arjan Dev repeated over and over; "Sweet is Your will, O God; the gift of your Name alone I seek." The Guru then calmly walked into the river bank, bidding his farewell to his followers and was gone forever, his body carried away by the currents. This act of brutality in ending such a saintly life with such cruelty was to forever change the course of Sikhism.


A ruling administration never takes notice of a religious institution, unless it has a political complexion and potential. The Mughal emperors never bothered about any saint of the Bhakti school. The Sikh movement was growing into a clear socio-political body, fired with a religious and moral zeal. It constituted a disciplined people who were being guided and led towards their ideals by a prophetic mystic. It was this socio-political growth which no ruler or administration could fail to take note of as a potential danger and challenge to its existence and rule. It is evident that the Sikh growth was of such dimensions that it attracted the attention of the administration and also of the Emperor. In addition it is a political fact that the Guru, as recoded by Beni Prasad (the historian on Jahangir), had given a very substantial aid of Rs. 5,000/- to Khusro, leading a rebel army and claimant to the throne. Further, this organisation was of such size and importance that the Emperor not only took the extreme step of the execution of Guru Arjun, so as to stop altogether this unwanted growth (as recorded by the Emperor), but also found the movement and the episode as significant enough for mention in his autobiography Jahangir was undoubtedly right that the organisation and the movement posed a political threat to the Empire. But he was mistaken in his belief that by the execution of the Guru he had nipped this growth in the bud. In this background and the context of future developments, it would surely be naive for anyone to say either that Jahangir, by this execution of Guru Arjun, converted a simple, peaceful and innocuous movement into a military organisation, or that the reaction of the Sixth Guru to his father s execution was overzealous, especially when we know that by the very nature of the Gurus' thesis, socio-political developments and activities were an integral part of their spiritual life. The Fifth and the Sixth Gurus had done nothing beyond the extension and development of the foundations laid and the organisation built by Guru Nanak.

Gupta calls Guru Arjun an original thinker, an illustrious poet, a practical philosopher, a great organiser, an eminent statesman and the first martyr of the faith. He completely changed the external aspect of Sikhism."