The Life and Times of Guru Arjan

Sikh History – The Life and Times of Guru Arjan Dev


Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!

Gurudwara Dera Sahib is situated opposite Lahore Fort near Badshahi Mosque. This is the place where Sat Gur Arjun's body was thrown into the river Ravi. The Gurudwara was built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the memory of Guru Arjan.
Gurudwara Dera Sahib,  situated opposite Lahore, where Guru Arjun’s body was thrown into the river Ravi. The Gurudwara was built by Ranjit Singh.

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 fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan Dev and his role in crystallizing the concepts of the Sikh faith. By the time Guru Arjan was appointed as the fifth Sikh Guru, the Sikhs were already a community of people who had a culture that was distinct from all others – Sikhs were a community that regarded all humanity as equal, gave women an equal status as men and rejected the vicious caste structures that plagued the Indian society.

In 1588 Guru Arjan first constructed the Darbar Sahib or the Harmandir Sahib and established Amritsar as the nerve center of the Sikh faith. By 1604, he had compiled the Adi Granth, the first version of the Guru Granth Sahib, which was put into its final form by Guru Gobind Singh. In 1606, the Indian subcontinent was under the control of the Mughal ruler Jehangir, and Guru Arjan became the first Sikh Guru to sacrifice his life to uphold the fundamental rights to equality, justice, freedom and religion. Before we get into details let’s revisit the social and political climate of India in the 15th and 16th centuries 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 created a whole new identity for themselves – a society in which men and women were treated equally and there were no class discrimination. Moreover, Guru Nanak’s teachings emphasized, 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 – these teachings became the hallmark of the new Sikh society.

Guru Angad, took over Guru Nanak’s mantle, collected his teachings, and combined them together. He standardized the Gurmukhi script and gave the Sikhs their own written language. Guru Angad was responsible for establishing a number of Sikh community centers and placed special emphasis on physical fitness.

Guru Amardas, as the third Sikh Guru, defined the Sikh ideals clearly and precisely for a whole range of important issues. His most notable hymn the “Anand” is sung at all religious ceremonies of the Sikhs. 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.

The fourth Guru, Guru Ramdas, was a true visionary for his ability to foresee the need for a moral and ethical code of conduct for Sikhs. In a unique manner, at every Sikh marriage celebration, the profound spiritual hymns composed by Guru Ramdas guide a couple to live their life as one soul and embody trust in each other. Before passing away on September 1, 1581, he appointed his youngest son, Arjan Mal, as Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh Guru.

Arjan Mal, was born on April 15, 1563, in Goindval in Punjab and was the youngest son of Guru Ramdas and Bibi Bhani – the daughter of Guru Amardas. Even at a young age, Arjan was the favorite of his maternal grandfather, Guru Amardas. He learnt the Gurmukhi script and Gurbani under the tutelage of Baba Budha, a veteran of Sikh affairs who had the distinction of serving all the Gurus. He was also given a suitable education in Persian and Sanskrit languages. During the lifetime of Guru Ramdas, the number of Sikhs had increased enormously. Arjun Mal lent a great hand in administering the affairs of the Sikhs and carrying on the various public utility works launched by his father. His humility and service endeared him not only to his father, but to all those who were around him. In due course, Arjan was married to Ganga, the daughter of Krishan Chand, a resident of the village Meo, close to present day Jalandhar. In 1595, they had their only child, a son they named Hargobind.

At a young age of 18, Arjan Mal was appointed as Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh Guru. As soon as his succession was proclaimed, his elder brother Prithi Chand, turned hostile. Prithi Chand also had the support of high caste Hindus who were looking to contain the growth of Sikh movement. One of his most prominent supporters was Mahesh Das, also known as Birbal, one of the most trusted members of the Mughal emperor Akbar. Birbal encouraged Prithi Chand to repeatedly file complaints with Akbar against Guru Arjan. However, Akbar was a tolerant ruler and had himself witnessed the Sikh way of life during his visit to Goindval and dismissed the complaints. In 1586, Birbal died in a battle against the Afghans and Prithi Chand’s support in Akbar’s court came to an end.

Meanwhile Guru Arjan concentrated his energy with the unfinished tasks of Guru Ramdas. Chief amongst these was the task of strengthening the Sikh society. With the extension of the Sikh population much beyond the Punjab, the Masand system had come to replace the manjis established by Guru Amardas. To contribute to the development of their society, Sikhs routinely made offerings to the Gurus. These monetary and physical offerings were collected by the appointed Masands and used to meet the expenses of the langar or the community kitchen and the general welfare of the Sikh society.

By Guru Arjan’s time, this work had increased a great deal and it was imperative to organize the system. In this connection, Guru Arjan asked every Sikh to set aside a daswandh, or one-tenth of their earnings, for the Guru’s fund. This money was collected on a voluntary basis and remitted to the Guru through the accredited Masands. Every Vaisakhi, all Masands came to Amritsar along with their sangat – or a small congregation to present their collection in person.

With a regular inflow of money, Guru Arjan now set his eyes to the completion of another task, unfinished in the time of Guru Ramdas – the construction of the city of Ramdaspur, which was shortly thereafter renamed Amritsar. The foundation stone of Darbar Sahib, or Harmandar Sahib also famously known today as the Golden Temple, was laid on December 28, 1588. It is notable that the foundation stone was laid by a renowned Sufi saint of the Qadri order, Mir Mohammad Khan, also known as Hazrat Mian Mir of Lahore.

Unlike all Hindu or Muslim places of worship, Harmandar Sahib was built at a lower level than the surrounding area. This was intended as a symbol of humility. Also, unlike mosques and temples which had only one entrance, the Harmandar Sahib had 4 entrances – one on each side – signifying that the doors were open to all who wished to enter. Gradually, the city of Amritsar became the nerve center of Sikh activity and Harmandar sahib acquired the status of the most revered Sikh place of worship. The Harmandar Sahib was destroyed many times by the Afghan forces. It was finally rebuilt in its present form and covered with gold and marble by Ranjit Singh in 1820. We will talk about the historical importance and significance of Harmandar Sahib in a later episode.

During these times, Guru Arjan toured the Punjab extensively. In 1590, he had another tank dug up at a place about 11 kms south of Amritsar – now known as Tarn Taran. Here, he also opened a center to care for people suffering from leprosy – these people were abandoned as outcasts by the society of that time.

From Tarn Taran, Guru Arjan went to the Jalandhar doab, and founded a third city of Kartarpur – this is distinct from the Kartarpur in Pakistan where Guru Nanak breathed his last. From Kartarpur he went to Lahore and from Lahore, in 1595, he went to the river Beas – on the banks of which he founded his fourth city Sri Gobindpur, in honor of his son Hargobind who was born in the same year. In 5 years of traveling through the Punjab, Guru Arjan brought thousands of people into the fold of Sikhism.

The birth of Hargobind however, reignited Prithi Chand’s enimity with Guru Arjan. Prithi Chand had begun to compile an anthology of sacred writings of the earlier Gurus and began to insert his own compositions. Guru Arjan realized the danger a spurious scripture posed to the Sikh faith. He abandoned all of his other pursuits in order to make an authentic copy of the hymns of his predecessors. He had the hymns of Guru Ramdas, and he persuaded the sons of Guru Amardas to give him the writings of the first 3 Gurus. In addition, he also sent his disciples in search of copies that might have been made. Guru Arjan made a final selection of the hymns and recorded them in the Adi Granth, the first compilation of the Guru Granth Sahib.

Guru Arjan himself was a great lyricist and his hymns have a rare quality that touches the listener’s heart. He mostly composed short hymns in a simple language. Sukhmani, one of his compositions, still remains a masterpiece that puts the mind at ease and provides instant solace. It is a beautiful example of Sikh teachings and has been a favorite reading with Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike. In all Guru Arjan composed 2216 hymns that are a part of the Guru Granth Sahib. At the instance of Guru Arjan, Bhai Gurdas wrote the Adi Granth. In addition to the hymns of the Sikh Gurus, the Adi Granth also included the hymns of various rababis and poets who were associated with the Gurus, as well as other learned bhagats drawn from all over India and from all walks of life.

The hymns in the Adi Granth were arranged musically according to 31 classical Indian ragas or musical meters and their sub-meters. This resulted in mixing of the hymns of all the Gurus in a particular Raga. These were followed by the hymns of Bhagats, beginning with those of Kabir and ending with those of Farid. At places the hymns of the Gurus and the Bhagats were also interspersed. The Adi Granth was a remarkable compilation that gave equal importance to each contributor. The Adi Granth was completed in 1604, and was formally installed at the Harmandar Sahib. Baba Buddha was appointed as the first Granthi – or the first reader of the Adi Granth. Bhai Gurdas not only wrote the Adi Granth but also wrote extensively on the interpretation of the hymns recorded in it. His writings are considered as the key to unlock the knowledge in the Guru Granth Sahib. We will dedicate an entire episode to talk about the Guru Granth Sahib and another episode to talk excusively on the contributions of Bhai Gurdas.

While the Adi Granth was still under preparation, enemies of the Guru went to Akbar and claimed that the Muslim and Hindu prophets had been denigrated in the book. According to Akbar’s autobiography, Akbar paid a visit to Guru Arjan in Goindval on November 24, 1598. He was pleased to hear some of the passages read out to him and found nothing objectionable. Akbar, as has been previously stated was rather tolerant and expressed his deep gratitude towards the Adi Granth. Akbar then made an offering of 51 gold mohurs or coins to the sacred book and gave robes of honor to Bhai Gurdas and Baba Buddha. At guru Arjan’s request, he also remitted the annual revenue of the district to ameliorate the condition of the peasants who had been hit hard by the failure of monsoon rains that year.

The Adi Granth became the most powerful factor in spreading the teachings of the Gurus amongst the masses. The hymns were of high poetic order, its language intelligible to the illiterate peasant, its ethics simple and direct. Akbar’s admiration was also a factor for the Sikh faith to flourish. During the 7 years between Akbar’s visit to Goindval and his death in 1606, the number of Sikhs increased steadily and trade thrived in the four towns of Amritsar, Kartarpur, Sri Gobindpur and Tarn Taran, all founded by Guru Arjan. Guru Arjan became a leader of national importance.

However, not everyone was pleased with the rise of the Sikhs and the popularity of Guru Arjan. Shaikh Amhad Sirhindi also known as Mujaddid Alif Sani, who claimed to be the second prophet of Islam after Mohammed, felt jealous of Guru Arjan’s influence, specially with the Muslims. When Akbar passed away in 1606, his son Jehangir came to power. This gave Sirhindi and other detractors of Guru Arjan an opportunity to complain to Jehangir. Sirhindi, a prominent member of the Naqshbandi Sufi order was not well disposed towards men like Mian Mir, a Sufi who had laid the foundation stone of the Harmandar Sahib and who preached tolerance of other faiths. Sirhindi advocated the use of state power for persecution of non-Muslims. He aligned himself with Jehangir and extracted promises to reverse Akbar’s policy of tolerance and further the cause of Islam at the behest of non-Muslims.

Jehangir was not as liberal as his father Akbar. When he became the emperor, he vowed that he would defend Islam and did not tolerate the conversion of Muslims to other religions. From his autobiography Tuzuk-i-Jehangiri, it is apparent that even before becoming the emperor, he had formed a strong prejudice against the Sikh movement and specially against Guru Arjan.

Talking about Guru Arjan, Jehangir writes and we quote a translation in Engish “So many simple minded Hindus and many foolish Muslims had been fascinated by his ways and teachings. He was noised about as a religious and worldly leader. They called him Guru and from all directions, crowds of fools would come to visit him and express great devotion to him. This busy traffic had been carried on for three or four generations. For years the thought had been presenting itself to my mind that either I should put an end to this false traffic or he should be brought into the fold of Islam.”

As said earlier, Guru Arjan’s high profile rankled Sirhindi. In one of his letters to Jehangir, Sirhindi described Guru Arjan as the chief of infidels and the leader of Kafirs. Jehangir, got his long awaited chance in the rebellion of his son Khusrau and he did not want to miss it. He was told that Khusrau had met with Guru Arjan. This was interpreted as a gesture of blessing in favor of the rebel, Khusrau. Jehangir’s autobiography further says about Guru Arjan “I fully knew heresies and I ordered that he should be brought into my presence, that his houses and children be made over to Murtaza Khan, that his property be confiscated and that he should be put to death with tortures.” No other enquiries were conducted and no trial was held.

There are numerous historical inaccuracies that state that Guru Arjan had in fact blessed Jehangir’s son Khusrau and provided him with financial assistance. This inaccuracy in all probability is the work of Shaikh Farid Bukhari, who had been given the title of Murtaza Khan – or one who had gained the royal pleasure. There are other stories involving one Chandu Shah as well. Many of these stories were invented later to shift the responsibility of the tortures and execution of Guru Arjan away from the Mughal officials and to justify the severity of the tortures inflicted on Guru Arjan. Jehangir’s autobiography does not mention any of these stories and seems to be the most reliable document for the history of this period. The real fact remains that Guru Arjan was not interested in any political games played by Khusrau, and there are no historical records of them ever meeting in Goindval.

Guru Arjan was finally taken into custody in Lahore and subjected to some of the most inhuman tortures that mankind has ever known. Guru Arjan was made to sit on big hot ferrous bread-baking plates and burning sands from a hot furnace were poured on his bare body. He was tortured until he was unable to stand anymore. He sent word to his son, Hargobind who was only 11 years old, to ask Baba Buddha to install him as the sixth Sikh Guru.

On May 30, 1606, Guru Arjan’s blistered body was thrown into the cold running waters of the river Ravi, which carried it away to its final rest. Thus Guru Arjan was executed within 7 months of Jehangir becoming the new Mughal ruler of India. Immediately after the news of Guru Arjan’s martydom, Hargobind was anointed as the sixth Sikh Guru. Sikhism henceforth in the words of Guru Hargobind was to lay equal emphasis on the development of physical and spiritual faculties. We will learn more about the life and times of Guru Hargobind in a later episode.

In the 22 years of Guru Arjan’s Guruship, the seed sown by Guru Nanak blossomed into its fullness. Guru Nanak’s teachings, which had been embodied in the hymns of his successors Guru Angad, Amardas and Ramdas were compiled into the Adi Granth. Guru Nanak’s way of life had now become the way of life of communities of Sikhs scattered all across India. The Sikhs had also become conscious of the fact that they were neither Hindus nor Muslims but formed a third community of their own.

Guru Arjan was an unusually gifted and prolific writer. His most popular composition was the Sukhmani in which he wrote, “Sarab dharma mein srest dharma, hari ka naam jap, nirmal karam” or “Of all creeds the sovereign creed is to remember God’s name and do good deeds”. This thought exactly echoes Guru Nanak’s teaching of naam japna, and kirt karni.Guru Arjan was the most quoted poet in Punjab but his voice was brutally silenced forever by Jehangir.

The death of Guru Arjan was a turning point in the history of Sikhs and the Punjab. He was an embodiment of all things Guru Nanak had preached and stood for. He had brought the Hindus and Muslims together in creating a scripture where both were represented and in raising a place of worship whose foundation was laid by a Muslim and the structure built by Hindus and Sikhs. He was a builder of cities who brought prosperity to all communities. As we will see in later episodes, Guru Arjan’s blood sowed the seed for the birth of the Sikh and Punjabi nation.

In the next episode, we will talk about the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind, and his role in uniting the Sikhs as a political and sovereign entity. So keep listening and follow us on facebook at or on our twitter handle – @ahistoryofsikhs.

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.