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Guru Arjan: The Saint & The Scripture

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By Pradeep Singh

One of the redeeming features of Medieval and Early Modern period of north India was the evolution of the Sikh faith. It came as a refreshing breeze that cleared the atmosphere of rigidity of traditional religions: Hinduism and Islam. The long years that Guru Nanak Dev had put in his travels across the subcontinent and the hours in seeking spiritual treasures from different saints and sages was distilled for humanity in his message. It was a message that gave much needed succour to the common peasants, tradesmen, householders and all similarly placed sections of the Punjabi hinterland. Nanak passed away in 1539 but his spirit soared high above the land in which he had preached his message of brotherhood, equality and the virtue of meditation on the True Name (Sat Nam). His successor Gurus absorbed their founder’s message and added the learnings from their experience to make Sikhism even more relevant to the times.

The fifth Guru in succession after Nanak was Guru Arjan Dev. His birth on 15 April, 1563, at Goindwal and later his life marked a watershed in the remarkable history of the Gurus and the Sikh Panth. Not only was he fifth amongst the ten Gurus, his work too was a significant landmark in the construction of the theology and canon of Sikhism. He was all but eighteen years of age when the responsibility of occupying the august office of the Guru devolved on his young shoulders. Youngest of three siblings born to Guru Ram Das and Bibi Bhani, Arjan Dev was preferred by his father over his other two sons, Prithi Chand and Mahan Dev, whom the Guru found unsuitable to the task of guruship.

To start with, Arjan had the good fortune to be the first Guru born in a Guru’s household, the previous Gurus were nominated from among the Sikh devotees. He was provided an education that included the study of music, poetry, languages such as Gurmukhi, Punjabi, Sanskrit and Persian under the guidance of his father and Guru. He also acquired knowledge of arithmetic as all Khatri boys had to in their childhood. More importantly, Arjun had seen the work being done at his maternal grandfather’s (Guru Amar Das) home in the collection and binding of the hymns (bani) of the first three Sikh Gurus and some other saints. And some years later, he was witness to his father’s efforts to lay the preliminary foundation of Ramdaspur (later Amritsar). All in all, Arjan Dev, in his childhood as apprenticed by destiny, was to make the most far reaching contributions of eternal value to the Sikh Panth.

His first significant project was raising Ramdaspur to the status of Amritsar. The land for the township was an inheritance as it was gifted to his mother Bibi Bhani by the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, as the third Guru had declined the offer in his name. The 500 bighas of gifted land was developed by Guru Arjan to have a large sarovar, Amritsar, the name which stuck to the city as well. Subsequently, through the voluntary contributions of his devotees and the ever increasing sangats, Arjan Dev built a unique temple in the middle of the sarovar and called it the Hari Mandir. Hari Mandir today is known world over as the Golden Temple. Keeping in true spirit of Nanak’s message of inclusiveness, Arjan Dev had the first brick of the Hari Mandir laid by the eminent Sufi of Punjab, Mian Mir of the Qadiri Silsilah, a revered order of mystic Sufis. The foundation was laid on 28 December, 1588. The temple was finally completed a decade later and dedicated to the people of Punjab. It stands as a lasting testimony to the essence of Sikhism and draws devotion of countless visitors who return with its blessings.

The socio-political climate in Punjab was subject in those days to the pull and push of the overall Mughal polity as Punjab was regarded as a premier strategic and economic region of the empire. But it also had strong orthodox cleric body of Muslims who did not brook the catholicity of Akbar’s reign. Guru Arjan seeing the needs of his nascent faith thought it timely to provide the Sikh Panth with a definitive scripture that would place the best of spiritual treasures of the Sikh Gurus and other prominent saints of India in the reach of the common devotee.

Thus began one of the greatest editorial efforts perhaps till date: the compilation of the Adi Granth which would later be known as the Guru Granth Sahib. Overcoming all challenges to this task, which included hurdles posed initially by jealous relatives, Guru Arjan with the assistance of his faithful scribe Bhai Guru Das collected all that was available of the hymns of the previous four Gurus and to these he himself contributed by composing 2000 hymns. He had to overcome the presence of spurious verses to ensure the purity of the Adi Granth and, hence, he evolved a method of numbering uniquely each line of the scripture to prevent later insertions. He also most commendably allotted musical ragas to every set of verses so that the right recitation could be rendered in appropriate musical notes. Guru Arjan was particular about the tonal quality of the ragas to ensure easy absorption by the listeners, therefore as many as 31 classical ragas were found suitable for inclusion in the Granth, making it a veritable repository of Indian classical music.

The humongous task was finally completed and on 16 August, 1604, the Adi Granth was placed in the sanctum of the Hari Mandir where it has stayed ever since and its devotional verses have been sung regularly by proficient rababis and kirtankars.

Guru Arjan’s lifelong efforts to bring the Sikhs to a position of note in the Punjab and his grand projects like the Hari Mandir, the city of Amritsar and the Adi Granth, were not palatable to the orthodox Muslim clergy of Punjab. Thus there was enough to create a cause to proceed against the Guru, and the change in political climate post Akbar’s death saw the martyrdom of Guru Arjan on 30 May, 1606, at Lahore in which the Mughal Emperor Jahangir was complicit. In his last moments, too, the Guru fired the spirit of his followers to be steadfast in their devotion to the One God. And the inspiration is ever present to date.

“He who drinks the essence of God is ever imbued with it;
The effect of all other essences is but for a moment.
He who is intoxicated with God’s essence is ever happy.”
…. Guru Arjan Dev

(Pradeep Singh is a Doon based historian and author of the Suswa Saga and Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun.)