Sikh History – The Introductory Episode

Sikh History – The Introductory Episode

Granthi reading the Guru Granth Sahib at Amritsar, Punjab. A Watercolor by William Simpson.
A Granthi reading the Guru Granth Sahib at Amritsar, Punjab. A Watercolor by William Simpson.

Welcome to the Sikh History podcast. This podcast series provides a fascinating look into the sparkling lives of the Sikhs from the 15th to the 18th centuries, transporting us back to the times of our ancestors. This podcast provides a historic context to the evolution of the Sikh religion, our values, our thoughts, our principles and our ethics and the reasons for our phenomenal successes as a strong knit worldwide community.

Episode 1: This episode chronicles the birth and growth of the Sikh religion from the birth of the founder Guru Nanak in 1469 to the death of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708. At about the same time, the Mughal empire established itself in India and followed a policy of persecution and oppression. The Sikh gurus opposed such policies and sacrificed their lives to uphold the people’s right to religion, justice and freedom. This episode contrasts these developments and highlights the major events that led to the growth of the Sikh religion.

Based on Panth Prakash by Rattan Singh Bhangoo, History of the Sikhs by Khushwant Singh and inspired by the Sikh History lectures of Bhai Amrik Singh.


Waheguru ji da khalsa , waheguru ji di fateh.

Welcome to the Sikh History podcast. This podcast series provides a fascinating look into the sparkling lives of the Sikhs from the founding of the Sikh faith in the 15th century to the present day, transporting us back to the times of our ancestors. This podcast provides a historic context to the evolution of the Sikh religion, our values, our thoughts, our principles and our ethics and the reasons for our phenomenal successes as a strong knit worldwide community.

To understand the Sikh religion and way of life, the Sikh values and Sikhi better, I cannot but stress how important it is for us to be aware of our history – to know about the times our ancestors lived in. Sikh history is a wonderful peak into our past that tells us how we came into being – both as people and as a community. It is a huge repository of information about how Sikhs have evolved in the last 500 years; the path our ancestors took to preserve the teachings of our Gurus. History also has a message for us – for all of us living in the present – It is simply impossible to separate the Sikh identity from the Sikh history and the more we know our past, the better we can nurture our present selves. The second point about history is that it contributes to our moral understanding – in a sense that when we attempt to understand the moral dilemmas that people in the past faced, people who have weathered adversity in real difficult circumstances, we take away extremely valuable lessons in courage, in diligence and about how to shape our moral thinking.

Everyday, around the world, in every Gurudwara, we do the Ardaas in which we recount our history, a history that connects us to our past – gives us the courage to face our present and the confidence to venture into the future with a blossoming pride in our heritage. It is only from history that we can learn things that would make us better humans. The stories of our past tell us what led to the success and failure of people. If we leave our history, we cannot understand our past and can never lead our future.

For Sikhs, the period of early 18th century was one of tremendous upheaval. Sikhs were always in a state of war against the Mughal empire in North India, with the result that very few historical accounts were recorded.  The East India company which had been rapidly colonizing India, finally managed to get a foothold in the Punjab. Curious to understand how a small community could stand up against the might of the Mughal empire, the British wanted to know everything about the Sikhs. It was necessary for them to understand the might of the Khalsa, in order to someday, establish their reign over Punjab.

A British commander by the name of Captain David Murray commissioned Bute Shah, a well known Muslim cleric in the court of the Mughal emperor, Farrukh Siyar, to write a history of the Sikhs. By all measures his report was biased against the Sikhs. A chance meeting between Captain Murray and Rattan Singh Bhangoo set the record straight,. When Murray sought Rattan Singh’s opinion of the Sikhs, Rattan Singh Bhangoo responded by writing the Panth Prakash, which remains an authentic source of information on the Sikhs in the 18th century.

The historical significance of Panth Prakash lies in the fact that its author Rattan Singh belonged to a historic family that had experienced various stages of persecution of the Sikhs. His grandfather Mehtab Singh was one of the leaders of 18th century Sikhs and had fought against the atrocities of Zakaria Khan, the most ruthless Mughal Governor of Punjab. Also through marriage he was close to the misl leaders. By narrating the accounts of Sikhs Rattan Singh Bhangoo has made significant contribution in understanding the lives of the 18th century Sikhs. He was the first person to record the history of Sikh martyrs in an objective manner and his writings have inspired many a tales of Sikh valor and folklore.

With that introduction in mind, lets go back to the founding of the Sikh religion and through this series of podcasts, gradually trace our steps to the present.

The history of the Sikhs starts in 1469 AD with the birth of Guru Nanak and can be divided into 3 major eras. We have the period of 1469 to about 1707 – which is characterized by the physical presence of the 10 Gurus. During this period, the rock solid foundation of Sikhism was laid. Sikh teachings were revolutionary in that they stressed on Ek Onkar, the monotheistic aspect of God, the equality of all men and women and advocacy for a casteless society, and the Sikh way of life that can be summarized as Naam Japna, or remembering God in our actions, the importance of Kirt Karni, or earning an honest living, and Vand Chakna, the practice of sharing with fellow humanity. The second period of Sikh history is between 1707 and 1839 – from the short lived period of Banda Singh Bahadur to the end of the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This era tested the resolve of the Sikhs to survive as an independent community, distinct from the prevailing society and its norms. The third era comprises the lives of Sikhs since 1840 to the modern day, with a look at the partition of the Punjab between India and Pakistan in 1947, the Indian state sponsored anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984 and the emigration of Sikhs from the Punjab to all corners of the world, forming a truly global community, bound by a common history and the love of the Guru Granth Sahib.

Guru Nanak traveled far and wide and wherever he went, he gained followers for his newly founded Sikh faith. These followers had broken away from their original communities for eg. the Hindus or Muslims or the Sufis etc. The result was that in his lifetime, Guru Nanak was able to create a community of people who had much more in common amongst themselves than to the communities they originally belonged to. Kushwant Singh, the famous Sikh author, has proposed that this ideal gave birth to the collective Punjabi consciousness and the Punjabi nationalism as distinct from all others. Guru Angad succeeded Guru Nanak and in his own quiet way he started to consolidate the still infant Sikh philosophy. He established Sikh centers of learning across the Punjab and sent out copies of Guru Nanaks shabads and hymns to each. In this process, Guru Angad also created the Gurmukhi script – consisting of 35 letters – all taken from Guru Nanak’s compositions. This step had far reaching consequences on the Sikh literary tradition and the Gurmukhi script became the nucleus of Sikh writings. It gave the Sikhs a written language distinct from the written languages of the Hindus and the Muslims and further fostered a sense of them being a distinct people.

Almost concurrent to when Guru Nanak was preaching his message of Ek Onkar, at the turn of the 15th century, Babar, the founder of the Mughal empire, had started his invasion of the Punjab in order to establish his empire in India. Babar’s first contact with the Sikhs began when his army imprisoned Guru Nanak in Saidpur, a small town near Islamabad, while Guru Nanak was returning from his travels to Baghdad in Iraq. Guru Nanak was subsequently released at the personal intervention of Babur.  Although Babur’s autobiography fails to mention the Guru, Guru Nanak wrote several passages criticizing the brutalities unleashed by the Mughal army in its invasion of India. Babur’s son, Humayun, came to power during the guruship of Guru Angad and remained indifferent to the Sikhs and to Guru Angad. By the time Humyun’s son Akbar inherited the throne, Sikhism was flourishing in Punjab under the Guruship of the third Guru – Guru Amar Das, who had established his own center at Goindval. When Akbar visited Goindval to meet Guru Amar Das, he was so impressed with the way of life in Goindval that he assigned the revenue of several villages to Guru Amar Das’s daughter Bibi Bhani as a marriage gift. Political and social relations between the Sikhs and the Mughals were at their best during this time.

Guru Amar Das introduced many innovations which tended to break the close affiliations of the Sikhs with the Hindus or the Muslims in India. Prominently, women were given equal rights as men and the practice of sati, the burning of widows along with their husband’s funeral pyre, was strictly forbidden, second, recitation of hymns of the Gurus replaced the chanting of Sanskrit shlokas at the time of birth and death and third, Guru Amar Das advocated monogamy and widow remarriage as means to uplifting the state of women in society.

THese measures aroused the hostility of the Brahmins who complained to Akbar – While Akbar never interfered with the Sikh way of life, there was evidence now of the strong opposition to sikh teachings from both the Hindu brahmins and the Muslims. This was the beginning of the oppression of the Sikhs – their first big break from the Hindu social polity and which subsequently compelled them to take up arms.

The Fourth Guru, Guru Ram Das led a relatively peaceful life and composed hymns while consolidating the Sikh ethos in the midst of his followers. His son, Guru Arjan Dev, succeeded him as the Fifth guru and in 1588 built the Harmandir Sahib at Amritsar – it has since become the most important place in the Sikh history.  By 1604 he had combined the teachings of all the gurus into the Guru Granth Sahib and anointed Baba Buddha as the first granthi. In 1606, Akbar passed away and Jehangir succeeded him. Jehangir was opposed to the geowing influence of the Sikhs and the political climate changed against the Sikhs. Jehangir demanded that Guru Arjan convert to Islam. Guru Arjan upheld his right to practice his religion in peace and when he did not agree to Jehangir’s wishes, he was tortured to death in Lahore on May 30, 1606.

The brutal murder of Guru Arjan was a shock to the Sikhs – and when Guru Hargobind took over as the Sixth Guru, he had two swords girded around his waist – one to symbolize spiritual power and one temporal. At Gwalior, he cultivated an army and over 800 horses, 300 troopers on horseback and 60 men with firearms were always under his disposal. His real troubles however began after Jehangir’s death in 1627 when Shah Jahan became the emperor. There were now frequent clashes between the Sikhs and the emperor’s forces and the peaceful atmosphere gave way to war cries on all sides.

Guru Hargobind was succeeded by Guru Har Rai, Guru Harkrishan and Guru Teg Bahadur in quick succession – in the meantime, Aurangzeb became the new Mughal emperor. Although quite learned in the Muslim tradition, Aurangzeb persecuted the Sikhs and was intolerant of other religions – he demolished temples and imposed taxes on Hindus for visiting their holy pilgrimage sites. Guru Tegh Bahadur stood up against Aurangzeb’s design of forcibly converting Hindus to Islam and paid dearly with his life. Aurangzeb had him executed on November 11, 1675 in Delhi.  This was the final straw in the relationship between the Sikhs and the Mughals  and there was open hostility between the two thereafter.  Guru Gobind Singh, who succeeded Guru Teg Bahadur, organized the Sikhs as an army. In a letter to Aurangzeb titled the Zafarnama, he wrote: When all other means have failed, it is permissible to draw the sword”.

Guru Gobind fought many battles to uphold the rights to freedom, equality and justice – the three most important virtues in Sikh philosophy and thought.

The first battle was fought and won in 1686 against the Rajput kings who had betrayed the Guru’s army and sided with Aurangzeb. In 1687, he was again victorious against the uprising of the hill chiefs who were always looking to gain favor with the Mughals, not withstanding the earlier sacrifices of the Sikh Gurus to protect these same chiefs and their subjects from Mughal atrocities. The period between 1687 – 1699 was rather peaceful and during this time, Guru Gobind gave the Sikhs the gift of the the present day Khalsa – a whole new religion and identity came into being during the Baisakhi celebrations of 1699 – an identity that was focused on the ideals of equality for all humanaity, remembrance of God, earning an honest living and giving away in charity first taught by Guru Nanak. It should be noted that Sikhs did not shy away from living up to those same ideals even when the Mughal rulers subjected them to personal atrocities – and the magnitude of these inhuman tortures is just impossible to imagine today. Within a few months a whole new people were born – they kept their beards, wore their long hair in turbans, armed at most times, and with a zeal to build a new community.

The proclamation of the Khalsa in 1699, most certainly made the hill chiefs even more nervous and they collaborated with Aurangzeb’s forces to “teach the Sikhs a lesson”. in 1701, they unexpectedly attacked Guru Gobind and the Sikhs at Anandpur – their only motive was to evict the Guru and the Sikhs from Anandpur, in what is called as the First Battle of Anandpur – the Sikhs were able to fend off the aggressors. In 1704, they regrouped and attacked the Guru again in the Second Battle of Anandpur.  Aurangzeb, swearing on the holy Quran, offered a safe passage to the Sikhs if they fled Anandpur – however he later betrayed them and attacked them as they were enroute to Talwandi Sabo. – in the aftermath, a battle was fought at Chamkaur, where the Guru’s two elder sons, Ajit singh and Jujhar Singh were killed. Also, the Mughal governor of Sirhind, Wazir Khan apprehended the Guru’s two younger sons Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh. When they refused to convert to Islam, they were executed.

Despite losing everything. Guru Gobind sent a letter to Aurangzeb, the famous Zafarnama, or the Letter of Victory, where he chided the emperor for his moral weakness in breaking all his promises and reprimanded him for his excesses in an unjust battle.

In early 1707, Aurangzeb died, leaving behind Bahadur Shah as the new emperor – Bahadur Shah was friendly towards the Guru. However while traveling through Central India in 1708, Guru Gobind Singh was fatally wounded by two Pathans – realizing that his end was near, Guru Gobind assembled his followers and invested the Guruship to the Guru Granth Sahib and urged all Sikhs to look upon the Granth as the symbol of all 10 gurus and a constant guide.

The 200 years from the time Guru Nanak founded the Sikh religion to Guru Gobind’s founding of the Khalsa panth, can thus be divided into two equal parts – in the first 100 years the 5 Gurus pronounced the ideals of a new social order in the Punjab. The religion was accessible to all humanity, strictly monotheistic, deriving its ideals from the teachings of the Gurus codified in the Guru Granth Sahib and its symbol was the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar – a place of worship whose foundation was laid by a Muslim and the structure was built by Hindus and Sikhs together.

The second period of 100 years saw the development of traditions that supplemented this new social order. In the next five Gurus, the Sikhs found their martyrs and heroes, a new political order, the Khalsa panth, amidst the oppressions and tyrannies of the Mughal rulers. Above all, in everything that Guru Gobind wrote or spoke, there was a note of buoyant hope, the concept of Chardi Kala, a constant conviction that even if life was lost, the mission of Sikhi was bound to succeed thereby creating a free, just and equal society.

So, this was a short introduction to the Sikh History and we will continue to talk about more events in subsequent podcasts. Keep Listening. Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.

Artwork Courtesy: . Painting of a Granthi reading the Guru Granth Sahib at Amritsar, a William Simpson Watercolor.