An Artist’s depiction of the Sikh practice of Langar, the common kitchen. Guru Amardas insisted that visitors partake in Langar before meeting him. All the Guru’s visitors and disciples ate together without being discriminated by caste,
religion, sect or language. Even today, the Langar system upholds the universal values of equality and brotherhood of all humanity.
Artist: Kuldeep Singh, New Delhi
The Life and Times of Guru Amardas
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 will talk about the third Sikh Guru, Guru Amardas and his role in consolidating the legacy of Guru Nanak and Guru Angad – and in furthering institutions that gave the Sikh religion a firm and solid foundation. Before we do that, let’s revisit the social and political climate of India in the 16th century and the birth of Sikhism under Guru Nanak.
The Muslim invaders first came to occupy Punjab in about 1000 AD and by the 13th century, their power had spread across all of India. This change in ruling class also brought about changes in administration and law and order and a forceful conversion of Hindus to Islam. The Hindu society had also degenerated – the caste system ensured that women, the low castes and the poor were deprived of the basic human right to an honorable living.
Guru Nanak was born in a society deeply divided into Hindus and Muslims. In this society, Guru Nanak’s Sikhs or disciples rebelled against the established social order and created a whole new identity for themselves. To summarize Guru Nanak’s teachings, nam japna or remembering God in one’s actions, kirt karni, or earning through honest and creative work, and wand chhakna- or sharing earnings with others, became the hallmark of the new Sikh society.
Guru Angad, took over Guru Nanak’s mantle, collected his teachings, and combined them together. Guru Angad standardized the Gurmukhi script and gave the Sikhs their own written language. He also established a number of Sikh community centers and placed special emphasis on physical fitness. Guru Angad was able to steer the Sikhs away from the politics and strengthen a community of people who had much more in common amongst themselves than they had with the communities that they previously belonged to. In a deeply divided and discriminatory society, Guru Angad’s Sikhs or disciples created a whole new identity for themselves and in 1552 AD, Guru Angad passed on the leadership of the nascent Sikh faith into the very capable hands of Guru Amardas.
With this background in mind, lets look at the life and times of Guru Amardas.
Guru Amardas was born in the village of Basarke, about 15 kms from Amritsar in Punjab. Due to lack of recorded evidence, it is impossible to exactly identify his date of birth, but most scholars have traced it to May 5, 1479. He was the eldest son of Tej Bhan a farmer and trader, and his wife Lachhmi. His family was engaged in agriculture and trading grains. Amardas grew up to be a successful trader and had reasonable financial resources.
Amardas was married to Mali, also known as Mansa Devi. For many years after marriage, the couple had no children. Eventually, they had four children, Bibi Dani and Bibi Bhani were the elder daughters and Bhai Mohan and Bhai Mohri were the younger twins. Bibi Bhani was married to the fourth Sikh Guru, Guru Ram Das, and we will talk in more detail about her in a later episode.
Since his childhood, Amardas had a religious bent of mind, which was steeped into the traditional Hindu way of life – he undertook an annual pilgrimage to Haridwar, a revered Hindu city by the banks of the river Ganges, and frequently visited Kurukshetra, another city considered holy by the Hindus. His last trip to Haridwar was at the age of 60. However, neither these visits, nor his charitable works brought him peace of mind or contentment.
For some years, though, Amardas had been familiar with the teachings of Guru Nanak and Guru Angad. His nephew was married to Bibi Amro, Guru Angad Dev’s daughter. Bibi Amro had brought with her the Sikh way of life. She had intense faith in the Sikh Gurus and a zest for selfless service. She recited the hymns of Guru Nanak and Guru Angad and had exposed everyone in the family to the teachings of the Sikh gurus.
While Amardas was disillusioned by his pilgrimages, he asked Bibi Amro to introduce him to Guru Angad. Soon after, he went into the service of Guru Angad at Khadur Sahib.
The next few years were the most rewarding in the life of Amardas and transformed him completely. He left behind the superstitions, the prejudices and the discriminations of the prevailing society and fully embraced the teachings of the Gurus. Amardas became a zealous follower of Guru Angad and despite his advanced age of almost 60, took up largely physical responsibilities.
He made it a daily practice to rise 3 hours before daybreak and fetch fresh water for the Guru’s morning bath. During the day, he worked in the community kitchen, cooking meals and cleaning utensils. In addition, he would go out to gather firewood for the kitchen, for in those days there were no modern cooking facilities and wood burning stoves were the norm. In the morning and evening, he busied himself with meditation or naam japna. The ardent spirit of his selfless service lent a new dimension to his personality. He grew tremendously in stature and won the admiration of everyone who came in contact with him.
Guru Angad was impressed by his service and had considered nominating him as the third guru. Sensing a clash between his sons and Amardas, he asked Amardas to relocate from Khadur and establish a new center of Sikh learning in the new township of Goindwaal – about 8 kms away from Khadur. Amardas relocated to Goindwaal, but still kept his daily routine in service of Guru Angad. Everyday, he walked from Goindwaal to Khadur, and on the way fetch fresh water for the Guru’s bath from the river Beas. He would stop midway at a place now known as Damdama – Damdama literally means a breathing place. The Damdama Sahib gurudwara stands at this historic place – this is different from the Takht Damdama Sahib where Guru Gobind Singh had set up his camp.
After about 12 years of service to Guru Angad, Amardas was appointed as the third guru in the same fashion as Guru Nanak had appointed Guru Angad. Placing an offering of 5 paise and a coconut, Guru Angad bowed before Guru Amardas and recognized him as the new Guru. Guru Angad breathed his last on March 29, 1552 and Guru Amardas assumed full leadership of the Sikhs.
Guru Amardas now established his center at Goindwaal. The new town was on the Grand Trunk Road built by Sher Shah Suri , connecting Lahore in the west to Calcutta in the East. While this allowed trade to flourish, Guru Amardas’ personal life was a model of simplicity. He slept for only 4 hours a day and immersed himself in consolidating the Sikh community. It was Guru Amardas who first advocated that all Sikhs should get together in the month of Baisakh in late spring. this led to the celebration of Vaisakhi and later in 1699, Guru Gobind established the Khalsa on this day.
Guru Amardas introduced many innovations which broke the close affiliation of Sikhs and Hindus. He composed new hymns most notable of which is the “Anand” sung at all religious ceremonies of the Sikhs irrespective of the nature of event, be it a marriage, birth or death. He advocated great importance in sangat – or congregation and in kirtan or singing of the hymns as a mode of ensuring righteous behavior. In total he composed 907 shabads that are part of the Guru Granth Sahib.
To dismantle any caste related discrimination, he mandated the langar – or community meal, for anyone who wished to meet him. To accord women an equal status as men, he condemned the practice of Sati, or burning of widows on their husbands funeral pyre. He also mandated that no women should observe the purdah system, or covering of face with a veil. He advocated for widow remarriage , intercaste alliances and monogamy.
Abolishing such deep rooted prejudices went a long way in creating an equality amongst men and women in the Sikh society. These innovations went directly against the vested interests of the Hindu Brahmins or the Muslim clerics who wanted to assert a tight control on the social structure.
In 1556 AD, Akbar became the Mughal Emperor. He was the most liberal Mughal ruler. When he visited Guru Amardas in 1567, he had to eat and dress like a common man before he could meet Guru Amardas. He was so impressed by the way of life of the Sikhs in Goindwal and the practice of equality amongst all that he gave away the revenues of several large villages to Guru Amardas daughter Bibi Bhani as a marriage gift. This gift also included the village of Amritsar, which later became the nerve center of the Sikhs. The relations between Sikhs and Mughals were at their best during this period.
The number of Guru’s visitors grew so much that Goindwal grew from a small village to a large town. Guru Amardas felt that he alone could not minister to the needs of the thousands of converts who wanted guidance. The establishment of 22 manjis was another important innovation introduced by Guru Amardas. The word manji literally means a cot or a bedstead, but here it denotes a responsible religious position conferred by the Guru on a pre-eminent devotee, or a seat of delegated authority.
Only people of recognized integrity were awarded the distinction of a manji. An essential qualification was that they correctly understood and practiced the teachings of the Sikh gurus. Appointees to the manji’s were called masands, and the most important function of these manjis was to initiate fresh people into the fold of Sikhism. The masands conducted their missionary work individually and through the sangat. They maintained their connection with Guru Amardas through periodic visits to Goindwaal. These visits were later synchronized with the Vaisakhi celebrations. The manjis also helped in promoting knowledge of the Gurmukhi script – which had now gained wide acceptance with the Sikh community.
Guru Amardas passed away peacefully on September 1, 1574 in Goindval, by the river Beas, at a very advanced age of 95. He was the longest living Sikh Guru and the total tenure of his Guruship was 22 years and 5 months. Before his passing away, he insisted that after his death, Sikhs were to engage in kirtan, or singing of Guru’s compositions, and naam japna, or remembering God in their actions. In this he ruled out mourning at death as contrary to Sikh teachings.
Before he died, he appointed his son in law Bhai Jetha, the husband of Bibi Bhani, as the fourth guru – Guru Ram Das. All through his life, Guru Amardas carved out a new and distinctive path for the Sikhs, and helped in consolidating the work of the previous 2 Gurus, thereby laying a rock solid foundation for his successors to build on. In later episodes we will begin to see how this foundation guided the course of action for the later Gurus.
In perspective, Guru Amardas assumed guruship in 1552 AD when Sikhism was in its infancy. Over the next 22 years, he worked tirelessly to chalk out programs for the speedy development of the Sikh society. The contemporary society was deeply divided between Hindus and Muslims and Sikhism was a challenge to the orthodoxy of both.
Guru Amardas was able to take up a whole gamut of important issues and on each one defined the Sikh position with clarity and precision – these issues included
1. Understanding life and death,
2. The importance of kirtan and sangat,
3. The promotion of equlity through langar,
4. Rejecting oppression against women,
and 5. The establishment of manjis or Sikh centers of learning to spread the word of Guru Nanak and Guru Angad.
Finally, an everlasting legacy of Guru Amardas that we cherish today is the getting together of Sikhs from all walks of life and all parts of the world on the occasion of Vaisakhi. He also accomplished the monumental task of compiling all the Sikh scriptures and composed hymns to enhance it. We can clearly say that Guru Amardas took the fullest possible advantage of his opportunities and made a rich and lasting contribution to the growth and development of Sikhism.
In the next episode, we will talk about Bhai Jetha, who went on to become Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Guru. We will talk about his role in continuing the legacy of Guru Nanak – and in furthering institutions that established the Sikh religion as an alternative to both Hinduism and Islam. So keep listening and follow us on facebook at facebook.com/ahistoryofsikhs or on our twitter handle – @ahistoryofsikhs.
Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.