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Guru Tegh Bahadur: The Martyr’s Whisper

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By Pradeep Singh

Sikhism has perhaps a unique distinction in that it was founded and nurtured by an unbroken line of most remarkable spiritual leaders. These spiritual masters we know as the ten Gurus, of which the first and most revered was Guru Nanak Dev, who set the tone to a new revival of mystic energy in the last decades of the fifteenth and early ones of the sixteenth century. The transformative message of inclusiveness, personal devotion to the Almighty and selfless service to the community was not just for the devotees and lay followers but as much for guidance of his successors.

Being fearless in pursuit of spiritual solace or in face of rank injustice was a keystone of the foundational precepts of the Sikh faith and a true Sikh was groomed through the bani of the Gurus to be prepared to part with his life to uphold principles enshrined in the Sikh canon, the Adi Granth and the Guru Granth Sahib, as it came to be popularly known.

The ninth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was the outstanding example of the belief that giving one’s life in the cause that is just, shows the world that righteous action is at all times the morally right action even if it asks for one’s life to be forfeited. It is not without divine significance that Tegh Bahadur’s name at birth was Tyag Mal. He was the youngest son of the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind, who seeing his courageous conduct, during an armed engagement with the Mughal forces in 1635, gave him the moniker of Tegh Bahadur, the brave of the sword. How prophetic these developments were in his early life is borne out by subsequent events involving Guru Tegh Bahadur who succeeded the infant Guru, Har Krishan, who died of smallpox in Delhi in March 1664.

Guru Tegh Bahadur graced the Guru-gaddi for a decade and this period was one of further spatial growth of the Sikh faith. The Guru, barring the founder, Guru Nanak, was the most prolific itinerant preacher of the faith and travelled far across India to Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Assam and strengthened the Sikh sangats in these regions, his message being one of hope for those facing oppression and persecution. His illustrious son, Gobind Rai, who became the tenth Guru as Guru Gobind Singh, was born during one of Tegh Bahadur’s halts at Patna, which commemorated the place by erecting a gurudwara there, now famous as Patna Sahib.

During this period, Guru Tegh Bahadur emerged as a popular champion of the common populace especially those who were discriminated against for social reasons. Owing to this open access to the Guru’s court and also protection at times, even fugitives from persecution and the law flocked to the Guru’s fold raising suspicion amongst the Mughal establishment, who viewed these activities from a political perspective and discouraged them.

In 1675, a large delegation of Kashmiri Brahmins, led by one Kripa Ram, sought the advice and help of Guru Tegh Bahadur as they had for some years been harassed and persecuted by a fanatical governor of Kashmir and forced conversion to Islam was being apprehended by the Kashmiris. Tradition holds that much deliberation was held amongst the Guru’s family and close confidants about resolving the problem of the Kashmiri Brahmins and the nine year old Govind Singh, the Guru’s son, remarked that no better person than his father was there to lead the cause of the Kashmiris before the then Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb. Tradition further informs that the Guru is said to have remarked to the Kashmiris that let the emperor first convert him if he could before he does the Kashmiris. Guru Tegh Bahadur was summoned to the Court of the emperor and, on the way, arrested along with his most trusted Sikhs, Bhai Mati Das, Sati Das and Bhai Dayala and all were brought in captivity to Delhi.

However, it is also pertinent to note that the Mughal emperors were more perturbed by political dimensions of social unrest rather than religious issues as affairs of political significance were considered something that needed a strong hand to be dealt with. Thus the growing influence of the Sikh Gurus over the rural, as also some urban, population of Punjab and north India was more a politically disruptive phenomenon than having purely a religious bearing. The espousal of the cause of Kashmiri Brahmins triggered the backlash, resulting in the beheading of Guru Tegh Bahadur, not before Mati Das, Sati Das and Bhai Dayala were tortured to death before the Guru. The event and place of Guru’s martyrdom at Chandni Chowk in Delhi is a landmark in history not only of the Sikhs but of the country as well.

24th November (1675) is commemorated as Martyrs’ Day, when the Guru whispered the immortal lesson for all to look at his example and contemplate: is this what makes a true Sikh? The dying Guru Tegh Bahadur lived out Guru Nanak’s immortal words: “If you want to play the game of love, approach me with your head on the palm of your hand. Place your feet on this path and give your head, without regard to the opinions of others.” – Adi Granth, p. 1412.

(Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of “Sals of the Valley A Memorial to Dehra Dun).