The Life and Times of Guru Gobind Singh
Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!
Welcome to the Sikh History podcast. This podcast series transports us back into the lives and times of our ancestors and provides a historic context to the evolution of the Sikh religion, our values, our thoughts, our principles and our ethics that bind us together as a worldwide community.
In the first part of this series we chronicle the growth of the Sikh religion from the birth of the founder Guru Nanak in 1469, to the death of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708. This period was one of tremendous political and social unrest in India. The Indian society was inherently discriminatory and oppressive towards women, the poor and those who stood in opposition to the ruling classes. The Sikh gurus opposed such policies and sacrificed their lives to uphold the fundamental rights to equality, justice, freedom and religion.
In this episode, we shall talk about the tenth and final living Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh and his role in giving a final shape to the Sikh beliefs and ethics. The life of Guru Gobind was marked by Aurangzeb’s unprecedented policies of oppression against the Sikhs as well as the Hindus, Buddhists and the Jains. It would be fair to characterize Aurangzeb as a ruthless, power hungry ruler who had an utter disregard for human rights and was also intolerant and hostile to all faiths other than Islam.
In such an oppressive political and social environment, Guru Gobind played a pro active role in shaping the Sikh society as we know it today. He took concrete and positive steps in formulating new structures and strategies to promote the cause of the Sikhs. He was the architect of the Khalsa, the Sikh society, which was a model deeply rooted in the concepts of equality, freedom and justice first proposed by Guru Nanak almost 200 years before him. To set a context to Guru Gobind’s life, lets recap the life of the 9th Sikh Guru, Guru Teg Bahadur.
Towards the end of 1665, Guru Teg Bahadur had left Punjab and set out on travels to eastern India. These travels were specifically tailored with the aim of instilling confidence amongst the people – mainly Hindus who feared retribution by Aurangzeb. This did not go well with the local Muslim clerics and on their complaints Aurangzeb arrested Guru Teg Bahadur. Favorably for the Sikhs, Raja Ram Singh, son of Raja Jai Singh who had earlier hosted Guru HarKrishan in Delhi a few years ago, interceded and Guru TegBahadur was released.
He continued on his journey – this time traveling eastward to Mathura, Banaras and eventually to Patna. On December 22, 1666, Guru Teg Bahadur’s only son Gobind Rai was born in Patna. With Patna as a base, Guru Teg Bahadur continued to travel peacefully throughout the region till about 1670. Gobind Rai spent his early childhood in Patna.
Meanwhile, Aurangzeb had grown more intolerant of the Hindus and on April 8, 1669, he issued orders to the governors of all his provinces to destroy, without any mercy, all schools and temples of the Hindus and in particular they were strictly instructed to put an end to the practice of idol worship. Under these circumstances, Guru Teg Bahadur along with Gobind Rai and the rest of his family, moved to Anandpur.
Gobind Rai’s formal education had already begun at Patna and continued into Anandpur under the tutelage of his mother Mata Gujri and grandmother, Mata Nanki who was also Guru Hargobind’s wife. They were both instrumental in educating Gobind Rai on the principles first established by Guru Nanak, expanded by the next 4 gurus and subsequently preserved by the rest.
At Anandpur, he was educated in Persian by Bhai Sati Das and a Muslim cleric Qazi Pir Mohammad, Gobind Rai was also trained in Gurmukhi by Bhai Sahib Chand and in Sanskrit by Hari Das.
Quite like his grandfather Guru HarGobind, young Gobind Rai possessed a keen interest in martial arts. Bajjar Singh, a Rajput warrior was appointed to impart skills in the use of arms and horse riding and Bhai Sango Shah, the husband of Bibi Viro imparted lessons in archery. Gobind Rai, thus grew up to be an all-round man, healthy and strong as well as enlightened and knowledgeable in Gurbani.
In the meantime, Anandpur, having been built up by Guru TegBahadur as a center of the Sikhs, attracted talented artists, scholars, poets etc. Anandpur was an attractive destination because it provided people not only with creative freedom but also a respite from the gloomy environment created by the oppressive, unjust and intolerant political and social climate in the rest of India.
Around this time, the hills of North India were ruled by numerous petty kings or rajas. There were 11 princely states: Kangra, Kahlur, Hindur, Sirmour, Mandi, Nurpur, Jammu, Garhwal, Guler, Jaswan and Kulu.
Today, these areas lie in the northern Indian states. Around the Punjab, the more well known were in Bilaspur, Sirmour, Nahan and Kangra. Their kingdoms varied from a few tens of square miles to thousands of square miles. Additionally, being at a higher altitude, they enjoyed the natural protection against invasion by the Mughals or other forces. To preserve their status, most of these kings opportunistically maintained their loyalties to the Mughal empire.
In 1675, when Gobind Rai was only 9 years old, Guru Teg Bahadur was arrested and imprisoned by Aurangzeb, who wanted him to convert to Islam. Guru Teg bahadur upheld his right to freedom of religion, not only for the Sikhs but also for all other religious sects in India, including the Hindus, the Jains, the Buddhists etc. On November 11, 1675, Guru Teg Bahadur was beheaded in a public execution. Guru TegBahadur’s sacrifice was a determined gesture of not bowing to oppression in the name of religion.
Bhai Jaita, a devout Sikh who was a witness to the execution of Guru TegBahadur, rushed to collect his severed head. He placed it in a basket, and along with a few other Sikhs took it to Anandpur, where it was cremated by the young Gobind Rai. Gobind Rai displayed extreme fortitude at the sudden turn of events and at the age of 9, assumed the Guruship of the Sikhs.
Aurangzeb, having proven his might believed that the young Guru Gobind and his Sikhs were not in a position to challenge the Mughal authority. Being a shrewd politician, he also thought that the Sikhs would be caught in the cross fighting of the hill rajas and would never be able to rise against the Mughals again.
The situation was different in the Deccan, in southern India, where the Marathas were now a powerful force led by Shivaji. Earlier in the 1650s, when Shah Jehan had appointed Aurangzeb as the governor of the Deccan, Shivaji and Aurangzeb were on friendly terms. However, their relations soured in 1665. When Shivaji wanted to expand his territory to the north, he was conclusively defeated by Aurangzeb’s ally Mirza Raja Jai Singh.
Just before the execution of Guru TegBahadur, Aurangzeb had deployed the best of his forces to quell the Pathan uprising in Hasan Abdal. Shivaji found this as a perfect opportunity to expand his territory and won a few battles between 1675 and 1677.
On his return from Hasan Abdal, Aurangzeb was involved in a battle against the Rajputs. Then, his elder son Akbar rebelled against him in 1679. To focus on these affairs, Aurangzeb temporarily moved his headquarters to Ajmer in Rajasthan. In 1679, Shivaji mounted one last attack on the Mughal forces of Aurangzeb.
To deal with him, Aurangzeb moved further south to Burhanpur, in central India. The Deccan became the center of his political and military activity and Aurangzeb did not concern himself with Sikh affairs for a long time. Shivaji died in 1680, leaving his son Sambhaji at the helm, who continued to fight against Aurangzeb till 1689, when he was captured and executed.
On 4th April, 1684, while still in Anandpur, Guru Gobind was married to Mata Jito, also known as Mata Sundari. Jito was the daughter of Bhai Ram Saran of Bijvara, near present day Hoshiarpur in Punjab. The Sikhs were always under the danger of being attacked by the Mughal Governors.
The raja of Bilaspur, Bhim Chand, was not as friendly and had started interfering in the affairs of the Sikhs at Anandpur. At the invitation of the Raja of Sirmour, Medini Prakash, in 1685, Guru Gobind moved to Paonta Sahib, by the river Yamuna, now in Himachal Pradesh. On July 22, 1685, Guru Gobind laid the foundation stone of the city and built a fortress.
The next few years were peaceful and quiet and Guru Gobind busied himself to strengthen the Sikhs. Like his grandfather Guru HarGobind, he let it be known that he would welcome offerings in arms and horses, and more than those, he welcomed able bodied men willing to join his crusade. Also, like Guru HarGobind, he made sure that his crusade was not wrongly interpreted as a fight against Islam – his private army also consisted of 500 Pathans.
Guru Gobind Singh’s years spent at Paonta were extraordinarily creative and significant. Personally, his eldest son Ajit Singh was born on January 26, 1687. Paonta also become the centre of spiritual and cultural renaissance. Guru Gobind penned most of his compositions at Paonta and also employed 52 poets to translate various texts in Persian, Sanskrit and other languages into Punjabi. In order to accomplish this task, he asked one Pandit Raghu Nath to teach Sanskrit to the Sikhs. As a Brahmin, he politely declined to teach the so called divine language to anyone who was not a Brahmin himself. So Guru Gobind sent out 13 of his scholars to Banaras, to study Sanskrit and the Hindu religious texts so that they were better able to interpret Gurbani which drew some allusions to the ancient Hindu philosophy. These students later formed a separate sect known as the Nirmalas. Within a few years the Sikhs grew in popularity, numbers and power.
In about 1688, Fateh Shah, the raja of the small kingdom of Garhwal broke a peace keeping agreement with Medini Prakash, the raja of Sirmour, and attacked Sirmour. In those days, Paonta Sahib was the only passage between Garhwal and Sirmour and Fateh Shah, without any provocation, attacked Guru Gobind at Paonta Sahib. He was also joined by the forces of 15 other small kings including Bhim Chand, the Raja of Bilaspur. And so, the battle of Bhangani was fought, in 1688 – about six miles from Paonta Sahib. Despite the numerical majority of the Rajput army, the Sikhs emerged victorious in a short war that lasted only about 9 hours. Following the resounding defeat, Bhim Chand, made peace with Guru Gobind and he moved back to Anandpur in 1688.
In 1690, the Rajas from the states of Guler, Jaswan, Dhadwal and Jasrota stopped paying heir annual tribute to Aurangzeb. As a result, Aurangzeb’s governor of Lahore, Hussain Khan, mounted an attack on these states. This was a rare occasion when all the hill rajas united and fought together against Hussain Khan. Bhim Chand also sought the help of Guru Gobind on the pretext that they were fighting against Mughal oppression. Guru Gobind joined the war at Nadaun, and the combined army was victorious. However, the Guru withdrew himself from the politics of the situation.
When Aurangzeb came to know about the battle, he sent his eldest son Moazzam, also known as Bahadur Shah to Punjab. Fearful of annoying the Mughals, the coward and selfish Rajas immediately submitted themselves to Moazzam and were again reduced to subservience of the Mughals.
By 1693, Anandpur had become the defacto headquarters of the Sikhs as Amritsar was still under the occupation of the Minas. At Anandpur, large number of people came into the folds of Sikhism and many Sikhs volunteered to be a part of Guru Gobind’s army. This became a source of nervousness for these same hill rajas whom the Guru had helped just 3 years ago against the Mughals. In 1693, they again went back to Aurangzeb and sought directions as to how to manage the Sikhs. In response, Aurangzeb issued a special order to the Governor of Sirhind to prevent any assembly of the Sikhs. Accordingly, the general of Kangra, Dilawar Khan, began plotting a series of attacks at Anandpur, to break the Guru’s power. Between 1694 and 1696, he planned at least 3 attacks, but looking at the might of the Sikhs, retreated back without a fight.
The hill rajas flip-flopped in their allegiance towards Aurangzeb and Guru Gobind. In 1696, when Muazzam took control of the Punjab as a Governor, these rajas within no time aligned themselves with the Mughals again and also paid the Mughal empire any tributes they had formerly withheld. However, Muazzam kept away from the Sikhs, primarily because he did not see them as a threat to Mughal empire. His belief was strengthened by the fact that Guru Gobind never claimed sovereignty over any area. Muazzam also believed that if a struggle ensued for the Mughal throne, he could manipulate Guru Gobind in his support.
In 1697, the poets and bards who had been dispatched to Benaras to study Sanskrit and the Hindu scriptures came back to Anandpur. These poets later formed the nucleus of the Nirmal Panth or the Nirmalas. These Nirmalas were now accorded the responsibility of understanding and translating various ancient Sanskrit scriptures and to provide a comprehensive understanding of the metaphors employed in the Adi Granth. They also wrote various other poems, ballads and Vaars most of which were composed to inspire people to stand against injustice and build a strong moral character. All along these trying times, Sikhs across all of India remained loyal to the Guru and kept sending their voluntary contribution of Daswand. Various Hukamnamas from Guru Gobind attest to this – notably the ones sent to the Sikhs in Dhaka, Patna and other areas of East India.
Traditional festivals such as Vaisakhi, Diwali and Holi were celebrated with zest at Anandpur, and Sikhs gathered in large numbers despite Aurangzeb’s official policy forbidding it. Great care was taken at these gatherings to suffuse the people with Sikh philosophy. Guru Gobind gave a unique twist to the celebration of Holi and instituted the Hola Mohalla. With an intention to train Sikhs in case of a fight with the Mughals army, Sikhs in Anandpur were divided into two groups – one group took up a position in the Holgarh fort and dug in for defense against an impending attack by the other group. A mock battle lasted for about 4-5 hours and eventually the fort would be captured through various war maneuvers. Thus each celebration at Anandpur not only infused a spirit of moral and physical courage in the cause of humanity, but also served to foster a common natural pride and a shared sense of fraternity. The Nihangs have preserved the memory of the mock battles of Hola Mohalla which is displayed every year during the Hola Mohalla festivities at Anandpur.
Despite his attention to peaceful pursuits, Guru Gobind did not lose sight of the impending danger both from the neighboring hill kingdoms and from the Mughals. To protect Anandpur, he built 5 forts around the city – Holgarh, Anandgarh, Keshgarh, Lohgarh and Fatehgarh. All these forts were connected with an intricate pattern of underground tunnels and were completed by 1699.
Also while in Anandpur, 3 more sons were born to Guru Gobind and Mata Sundari. Jujhar singh was born in 1690, Zorawar Singh in 1697 and Fateh Singh in 1699.
In 1699, Guru Gobind formally organized all the Sikhs as the Khalsa brotherhood. The word Khalsa is taken from Persian. In olden times, it referred to a piece of land that was under the direct supervision and control of an emperor. According to Guru Gobind, Khalsa was Akal Purakh Ki Fauj – or the army of the one timeless God as described in the teachings of Guru Nanak and the other Sikh Gurus. Thus Khalsa is a sovereign entity that owes its allegiance only to God. In Sikh tradition, the word Khalsa first appears in a hukmanama (order) by Guru Hargobind (the sixth Guru) which refers to a sangat as “Guru ka khalsa” (“Guru’s Khalsa”). It also appears in a hukamnama by Guru Tegh Bahadur (the ninth Guru), in the same sense. This was also in response to the corrupt practices of some masands who had positioned themselves as intermediaries between the Sikhs and the Guru. The greatest lever used by the Guru in uplifting his people was empowerment, self respect and human dignity.
The creation of the Khalsa was a direct outcome of the political, social and religious scenario played out in India during the Mughal period. Civil laws were replaced by religious laws and Aurangzeb demanded India be converted into an all Muslim state. Even amongst Muslims, Aurangzeb was bigoted against the Shias and the Sufis and many liberal minded Muslims were put to death including Qamir, a scholar from Sirhind. Also, in 1669, the celebration of Moharram was banned and many Shia imams were executed.
It is fair to say that Guru Gobind was as fed up with the state of political, social and religious affairs under the Mughal rule as Guru Nanak was when he founded Sikhism in the 15th century. As a result in 1699, he invited Sikhs from all over India to visit Anandpur during the festivities of Baisakhi. He specially asked them to come with their hair unshorn. The Sikhs responded by gathering in Anandpur in large numbers. On March 29, 1699, Guru Gobind chose 5 Sikhs who had volunteered their lives in the service of mankind to form the 5 beloved ones or the Panj Pyaras. These 5 volunteers were from all over India and from all walks of lives.
Daya Ram, a warrior from Lahore was the first to volunteer followed by Dharam Dass, a peasant from Hastinapur. They were followed by Himmat Rai, a chef from Jagannath Puri, Mokham Chand, a calico printer from Dwarka, and Sahib Chand, a barber from Bidar.
These were the first five Sikhs to be initiated as Khalsa and were initiated with a serving of sweet water, or Amrit, prepared by Mata Sundri. To these 5 beloved ones, Guru Gobind gave the last name of Singh – or a Lion. In addition, he gave the last name of Kaur or a princess to the Sikh women.
With this one swift act, Guru Gobind permanently erased any caste differences that may have lingered on within the Sikh society of the time. In 1699, when the rest of the world was still practicing slavery and caste system Guru Gobind declared all humans as equals. Guru Gobind declared that a quorum of 5 Sikhs shall mean a presence of the Guru himself. In an unprecedented move, the 5 beloved ones then proceeded to initiate Guru Gobind himself, and he thus changed his name to Gobind Singh.
Thus initiated into the Khalsa, Sikhs were required to live a virtuous life of morally responsible actions and under a discipline. For outward recognition, he prescribed long hair or Kesh. Long hair had long been associated with holy men and their followers.
When Guru Gobind mandated it for all Sikhs, he united them under a unique physical appearance. Guru Gobind’s intention was to make the Sikh brotherhood recognizable in a large crowd and someone who was not scared of standing up for justice and equality and against oppression. To upkeep the hair and instill a sense of discipline in all aspects of life, he further prescribed a Kangha or a comb.
Kara, or a steel bangle worn by Sikhs, is another article of faith prescribed at the establishment of the Khalsa. Steel is a symbol of strength and the circular shape of the Kara has no beginning or end. This represents the Sikh view of God as eternal and infinite. In addition, by its presence on the wrist, it is a constant reminder for Sikhs to act righteously.
The Kachera, also prescribed on the Vaisakhi day of 1699 are short trousers. Ever since the time of Guru Hargobind, Sikhs had been involved in quite a few battles with the Mughal forces. As a result their battle uniform had already evolved from the inconvenient and complicated “dhoti” worn by most people to the kachehra thus mandated by Guru Gobind.
The fifth article of faith is the Kirpan or a short sword worn by Sikhs. It is a symbol of the Sikhs being willing to stand up against injustice and oppression at all times. Historically, the Indian society was divided into 4 castes – of these only the Khatris had the right to bear arms. The Kirpan signified the right to bear arms and stand up against injustice and oppression.
The five outward symbols taken together signify that the Sikhs, both individually and as the Khalsa community, should be strong in body, mind and soul and develop an integrated personality. These articles of faith also made it impossible for Sikhs to conceal their identity – a virtue that inherently makes them well suited to stand up against injustice, intolerance and oppression.
To say that Guru Gobind in any way deviated from the principles of Guru Nanak or the other Sikh Gurus would be a false narrative. The idea of Sikhs following a different path true to their moral and character is found in the earliest writings of Guru Nanak. In Siree Rag, Guru Nanak said, “Jin khin pal naam na visrey, te jan virley sansar” Or those who always remember God’s name, act with a righteous conviction that sets them apart from the rest of the world.
200 years before the Sikhs were united as the Khalsa brotherhood, Guru Nanak had also said,
“Jau tau prem khelan ka chao, sir dhar tali gali meri aao It marag pair dhareejai, sir deejai kaan na keejai.”
Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1412
Translated, it means, if you wish to play the game of love, you should be ready to sacrifice your heart. For on this path, even the first step should mean that you will not hesitate to lay down your life to uphold righteousness and justice.
Guru Gobind extended such thoughts and gave the Sikhs a very visible physical identity. The Sikhs responded enthusiastically to embrace this identity and pledged to uphold the virtues associated with it.
The immediate effect of the creation of the Khalsa was that it brought the hostility of the Hill kings into the open. They saw it as a threat to their own power. Ajmer Chand, the king of Bilaspur, within which Anandpur was located, was particularly against Guru Gobind. He assembled other smaller kings and launched multiple attacks on the Sikhs in Anandpur starting in 1700. In one of these battles, the brave Bachittar Singh single handedly fought against an intoxicated elephant who then went on a rampage against Ajmer Chand’s army.
Ajmer Chand had achieved little success in fighting against the Sikhs. In his desperation, he sought the assistance of the Mughal forces – the same Mughals who had been actively persecuting him and other Hill kings and their subjects for well over 100 years. The Mughal forces arrived in Sirhind to collaborate with Ajmer Chand against the Guru.
Towards the end of 1699, the peace at Anandpur was disturbed by Wazir Khan, the Subedar of Sirhind, who made a surprise attack on Anandpur and the Sikhs had to temporarily retreat from Anandpur.
Then in 1702, Ajmer Chand bribed Sayyad Beg and Alif Khan, two eminent commanders of the Mughal army, to attack the Guru. Guru Gobind was encamped at Chamkaur, and a small fight ensued. Sayyad Beg was so impressed by Guru Gobind’s charismatic personality that he thought it appropriate to join him and thereafter fought along the Guru’s side. Alif Khan had no choice but to retreat to Delhi. Importantly, these skirmishes also provided Ajit Singh, the eldest son of Guru Gobind, an ideal setup to learn warfare and he showed remarkable prowess in the battlefield.
In 1703, at the instance of the hill kings, Aurangzeb sent a strong contingent of Mughal army to Anandpur to fight against the Guru. The intolerant Sunni advisors of Aurangzeb termed the battle as a jihad – or a religious crusade against the supposed infidelity of Guru Gobind. The Mughal army led by Ramzan Khan plundered Anandpur. The gains made by Mughals were reversed when Ajit Singh, skillfully leading the Sikhs pounced on the Mughal army in retreat. This upset Aurangzeb who was still encamped in Southern India. Reacting to the losses, Aurangzeb sent a personal letter to Guru Gobind stating:
“There is only one Emperor. Your religion and mine are the same. Come to me by all means, otherwise I shall be angry and go to you. If you come, you shall be treated as holy men are treated by monarchs. I have obtained this sovereignty from God. Be well advised and do not thwart my wishes.”
Guru Gobind Singh in his reply wrote:
“My brother. The same sovereign who has made you emperor has sent me in the world to do justice. He had commissioned you to do justice, but you have forgotten his mandate and practice hypocrisy. Therefore how can I be on good terms with you who persecutes the Hindus with blind hatred? You do not recognize that the people belong to God and not to the Emperor, and yet you seek to destroy their religion.”
Soon after this, the Mughal army advanced from Ropar and attacked Anandpur. Along the way, a fierce battle took place in Kiratpur and the Sikhs were forced to retreat into Anandpur. Thus began the seize of Anandpur by the Mughal forces.
To counter the Mughal army, Guru Gobind invited help from his Sikhs. He issued several letters and urged them to reach Anandpur, fully armed. Hukamnam #60 was sent to Bhai Mukhia and Bhai Parsa who were asked to come with “cavalries, footmen, gunners and daring youths.”
The Sikh army was divided into 6 contingents. Guru Gobind placed one contingent in each fort and a detachment of 500 Sikhs was kept in reserve. Anandgarh was under Guru Gobind himself, Fatehgarh was entrusted to Uday Singh. Holgarh was in the command of Mokham Singh. Guru Gobind’s eldest son Ajit Singh controlled Keshgarh and his younger son Jujhar Singh commanded Lohgarh.
On the very first day, Ajit Singh won a major battle defeating Jagatullah, the leader of Ranghars and Gujjars. It is estimated that in the first day of the battle Wazir Khan lost more than 900 troops. In an interesting incident, one Sikh of Guru Gobind, Bhai Ghannaiya served water to all on the battlefield, including the enemy armies of the Mughals. This infuriated the Sikhs, who promptly handed him over to Guru Gobind. When the Guru inquired about the alleged treachery, Bhai Ghannaiya responded that he was merely serving humans on the battlefield and recognized no Sikh or Turk, but wounded soldiers who needed respite. Guru Gobind was immensely pleased to know that his Sikh, Bhai Ghannaiya, had not only understood the Sikh philosophy, but was practicing it even under trying circumstances.
The siege of Anandpur was conducted with great intensity and Anandpur was completely cordoned off. Wazir Khan, the Mughal commander, made an offer of safe passage, if the Guru and his Sikhs left Anandpur. In December 1705, Guru Gobind evacuated Anandpur. However, breaking their promise of safe passage, the Mughals attacked the Sikhs at various places.
In the process, the Guru’s family was separated from each other. On December 9, 1705, his youngest sons, Fateh Singh and Zorawar Singh were captured by the forces of Wazir Khan and cruelly put to death by burying them alive.
This episode finally led to the epic battle of Chamkaur. At Chamkaur, Guru Gobind’s army comprised of 40 Sikhs who bravely fought against the Mughal army of Aurangzeb which included a cavalry regiment of 700.
By the end of the day’s fight, 35 of the 40 Sikhs, including Ajit Singh and Jujhar Singh, two eldest sons of Guru Gobind were killed. Two of the original Panj Pyaras, Mokham Singh and Himmat Singh were also killed in the battle. Only 5 Sikhs survived, Dya Singh, Dharam Singh, Man Singh, Sant Singh and Sangat Singh. They gathered in a group as Panj Pyaras, enforcing the Khalsa protocol, and passed a Khalsa resolution. In order to serve the wider interests of the Sikhs, they ordained the Guru to escape from the battlefield of Chamkaur. Guru Gobind was not only a leader, but also a follower of the Khalsa brotherhood.
Guru Gobind escaped from Chamkaur, and shortly thereafter he reached Malwa and camped at Machiwara. Here he composed two letters to Aurangzeb, known as the Fatehnama and the Zafarnama. The Fatehnama contained 24 couplets in Persian – the letter is a sharp rebuke to Aurangzeb who had built his empire through loot, plunder and hypocritical acts, so much so that he had resorted to fraud in his dealings with his father ShahJehan. In the letter, Guru Gobind urges Aurangzeb to himself take to the battlefield instead of cowardly depending upon hired soldiers. In response to the Fatehnama, Aurangzeb sent a standard reply that echoed his previous correspondence and claimed that Mughal kingdom had been bestowed upon him by God.
In response to Aurangzeb’s oral and written exchanges to the Fatehnama, Guru Gobind wrote the second and the most famous letter titled Zafarnama, or the epistle of victory. The Zafarnama is written in exquisite Persian verse and was a defiant message addressed to Aurangzeb. Despite suffering huge losses in the battle with the Mughal forces, including the loss of his 4 sons and many a Sikhs, Guru Gobind felt that he had won a moral victory over Aurangzeb. The 111 verses of the Zafarnama highlight Guru Gobind’s spiritual philosophy, the unity of moral thoughts and action as well as a deep understanding of the true nature of God and creation. The Zafarnama is a short but powerful example of his forthright and fearless philosophy as well as of his literary poetic genius. Dya Singh and Dharam Singh took the Zafarnama personally to Aurangzeb who was then camped in the Deccan.
In the meantime, Guru Gobind had moved towards Khidrana, and sensing an opportunity, Wazir Khan again attacked the Sikhs. Once again the Sikhs were outnumbered and a band of 40 Sikhs, led by Mahan Singh and inspired by Mai Bhag Kaur fought heroically. All 40 of them were killed in the battle, but in the process they turned the Mughal forces around and the battle came to an end. To commemorate their sacrifice and after more than 300 years of the event, Sikhs still remember this band of 40 as the Chalee Muktae in their Ardas. The battlefield of Khirdana is now the bustling town of Muktsar in Punjab. Bhag Kaur was also seriously wounded but survived. She later became a bodyguard to Guru Gobind Singh. In Sikh folklore, Bhag Kaur is also affectionately known as Mai Bhago.
Following the battle of Muktsar, Guru Gobind retreated to Talwandi Sabo, also known as Damdama Sahib, where he was reunited with Mata Sundri. During his time at Damdama, Guru Gobind strengthened the pillars of the Sikh faith and a large number of people converted to Sikhs. The final version of the Guru Granth Sahib was recompiled here. Guru Gobind added the hymns of Guru TegBahadar to the Adi Granth which already comprised of the hymns of the first 5 Gurus. This final version of the Guru Granth Sahib has since been treated as a living guru by the Sikhs.
Shortly thereafter, Guru Gobind received a request from Aurangzeb for a personal meeting. The Akham-i-alamgiri, or Anecdotes of Aurangzeb, written by Innayat Ullah Khan, records the receipt of the Zafarnama. It also records that Aurangzeb wanted to meet Guru Gobind and ordered Munim Khan, the subedar of Lahore, to make suitable arrangements for Guru Gobind’s travels to Ahmednagar, where he was encamped. It is not clear why Aurangzeb wanted to meet him, but on October 30, 1706, Guru Gobind left Talwandi for Ahmednagar. Aurangzeb was 88 years old by now, and his health was failing. Before they could meet, Aurangzeb died on March 3, 1707.
Hearing of the death of Aurangzeb, Guru Gobind aborted his travel to the Deccan and instead turned towards Delhi. A war of succession broke out between Aurangzeb’s sons. According to the book, Mulaqat da Prasang, in May 1707, Bahadur Shah met with Guru Gobind in Delhi and solicited his help in gaining the throne of the Mughal empire. It is unlikely that any help was offered by the Guru. After gaining the throne to the Mughal empire, Bahadur Shah invited Guru Gobind to Agra. The Guru accepted the invitation in the hopes of negotiating a peace treaty between the Mughals and the Sikhs. From Agra, Guru Gobind had sent out a hukamnama to the Sikhs of Dhaul, near Bhatinda. Once again, he addressed the entire sangat as his Khalsa and urged them to be fully armed when he met them later in the year.
It is thought that Guru Gobind and Bahadur Shah had conversations regarding a wide range of subjects. Chief amongst them was putting an end to the conflicts between the Mughals and the Sikhs that had been raging for about 100 years. Since this would inevitably cause some discontent with the hill chiefs, the Guru had wisely advised his Sikhs in Dhaul to meet him fully armed.
In the meantime, Kam Baksh, a brother of Bahadur Shah positioned in Hyderabad, India, rebelled against him and Bahadur Shah had to move to the South. Since the negotiations with Bahadur Shah were still in progress, Guru Gobind decided to accompany Bahadur Shah instead of immediately returning to the Punjab. Bahadur Shah was clever to recognize that the presence of Guru with him was preferable to the Mughals to his free presence in Punjab. Therefore, Bahadur Shah under the pretext of being occupied by the rebellion, kept postponing the negotiations. In the meantime, he continued the oppressive policies of Aurangzeb directed at non-Muslims.
Bahadur Shah left Agra around December 1707. Guru Gobind Singh did not start along with Bahadur Shah, but joined him along with his few trusted Sikhs on April 2, 1708, perhaps at Ujjain in Central India. They met briefly and then parted ways again for Guru Gobind had wanted to meet his Khalsas along the way. Bahadur Shah’s court journal, Twarikh Bahadur Shahi, notes that all along the way, Guru Gobind held assemblies of Sikhs. He imparted Sikh teachings and empowered and educated the locals.
In early September 1708, both met again at Nanded. Guru Gobind had utilized all of the year traveling and propagating the Sikh faith. Also, along the way, he acquired a first hand perception of men and material that could be utilized in case of any fallout with Bahadur Shah.
By this time the Guru had been involved in negotiations with Bahadur Shah for almost 15 months, without any outcome. At Nanded, the Guru decided to detach himself from the royal camp. He stayed at Nanded for about a month. During this time, Guru Gobind pursued activities that helped Sikhism flourish in the Deccan and the south. More importantly, the Guru commissioned one of his Sikhs, Banda Singh, to lead the Sikhs against the unjust rule of the Mughals and dispatched him to the Punjab. We will learn about Banda Singh Bahadur in a separate episode.
Bahadur Shah did not take this kindly. Instead of going to Hyderabad, he conspired with two Pathans, Jamshed Khan and Ata Ullah. They were both hired to assassinate Guru Gobind Singh. They both paid several visits to the Guru and even attended his discourse thus avoiding all suspicious activity.
One afternoon while the Guru was asleep, Jamshed Khan sneaked into his camp and stabbed Guru Gobind with a dagger, a little below the heart. The Guru woke up and killed Jamshed Khan with a single blow of his sword. The Sikhs killed his companion, Ata Ullah while he was trying to flee from the scene.
Guru Gobind succumbed to his injuries on October 7, 1708. Realizing that his end was near, he gathered all his Sikhs and bestowed the next Guruship to the Guru Granth Sahib, containing the hymns from 6 previous Gurus. Contrary to all other assertions, Guru Gobind Singh did not compile his own writings himself, nor were they compiled into the Dasam Granth during his lifetime. The Dasam Granth therefore does not occupy the same spiritual status as the Guru Granth Sahib.
Bestowing the Guruship to the Guru Granth Sahib was a unique event with far reaching implications. The Guru put an end to the institution of physical Guruship by asking the Sikhs to regard the Guru Granth Sahib as their spiritual Guru. At the establishment of the Khalsa in 1699, the Guru had already surrendered his personality into the order of the Khalsa. At the battle of Chamkaur, he had to follow the orders of the Khalsa, thereby affirming the supremacy of the Khalsa. Succession now passed on to Guru Granth and the Khalsa in perpetuity. The Sikhs derive the meanings of their ideals and institutions from the Guru Granth which also serves to regulate their actions.
On October 28, 1708, Bahadur Shah ordered a dress of mourning to be presented to the son of Jamshed Khan, the assassin of Guru Gobind Singh and who had been killed by the Guru himself. Jamshed Khan was not a high ranking official entitled to high honors. This act of the emperor shows that Bahadur Shah was well aware of the conspiracy and Jamshed Khan enjoyed the patronage of the emperor.
Compounding the agony of the Sikhs, two days later, on October 30, 1708, Bahadur Shah also offered a robe of mourning to the family of Guru Gobind. This again shows that he reserved a preferential treatment for Jamshed Khan and perhaps accorded him a status higher than that accorded to Guru Gobind Singh. The Empereor’s subsequent refusal to attach the property of the Guru against the will of his courtiers shows his cunning diplomacy. It was purely eyewash and a cover up for his fraud.
In this episode, we talked about the life and times of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Guru of the Sikhs. The life of Guru Gobind was marked by Aurangzeb’s unprecedented policies of oppression against the Sikhs as well as all other sections of the Indian society who did not embrace Islam. In such an oppressive political and social environment, Guru Gobind played a pro active role in shaping the Sikh society as we know it today. He took concrete and positive steps in formulating new structures and strategies to promote the cause of the Sikhs. He was the architect of the Khalsa, the Sikh society, which was a model deeply rooted in the concepts of equality, freedom and justice first proposed by Guru Nanak almost 200 years before him.
During his lifetime, Guru Gobind Singh could not free the Indian society of bondage and slavery. However, he filled the minds of his followers with love for freedom and democratic ideals. He had dispelled the fear of authority and dispelled the fear of the Mughals. Guru Gobind had the satisfaction of knowing that he had sown the seeds for creating a just society against the tyranny and atrocities of the Mughal empire. He was sure that he was leaving behind in the Khalsa, an army of free, brave, selfless and sacrificing soldiers who would support the weak and innocent, and fight against oppression.
This concludes the first part of our podcast series on Sikh History in which we talked about the approximately 240 years between the birth of Guru Nanak and the passing away of Guru Gobind. In the second part of Sikh History we will explore the time period between 1708 which coincided with the rise of Banda Singh Bahadar to about 1857 which coincided with the first war of Indian Independence.