The Life and Times of Guru HarGobind

Sikh History – The Life and Times of Guru HarGobind

An Artist's depiction of the Call to Arms raised by Guru Hargobind
An Artist’s depiction of the call to arms by Guru Hargobind while simultaneously upholding compassion inherent in the Sikh faith

Artwork: An artist’s depiction of the young Hargobind, son of the martyr Guru Arjan Dev, in royal robe, picking two swords, symbolizing Miri and Piri, to uphold Sikhism. Out of a window, a horse stands,on an open ground, that would lead him to a life full of courage and compassion.

Artist: Kuldeep Singh, New Delhi


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 sixth Sikh Guru, Guru HarGobind and his unique leadership of the Sikhs after the brutal execution of Guru Arjan by the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Guru Hargobind was only 11 years old when he was appointed the 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. Under the leadership of Guru Hargobind, Sikhs acquired the skills to defend themselves and the young Sikh faith from the atrocities of the Mughal rulers. 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.

Guru Nanak was born in a society deeply divided into Hindus and Muslims. Muslim invaders had occupied India by the 13th century and had started a forceful conversion of Hindus to Islam. Hindu society was plagued by rigid caste structures – so much so that women, the low castes and the poor were deprived of the basic human right to an honorable living.

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.

Guru Arjan was the fifth Guru. He composed a number of hymns and compiled the teachings of the previous Gurus into the Adi Granth. Guru Arjan penned the hymn Sukhmani, constructed the Harmandar Sahib and established the city of Amritsar as the nerve center of the Sikhs. By the end of the 16th century, the Sikhs had become conscious of the fact that they were neither Hindus nor Muslims but formed a third community of their own.

On 14th June 1595, Hargobind, the only son of Guru Arjan was born in the village of Wadali, about 6 miles west of Amritsar. Guru Arjan had started the construction of the Harmandar Sahib in 1588, and embarked on extensively touring the Punjab during this time.  Hargobind grew up in and around Amritsar, and Guru Arjan’s philanthropic activities had a lasting impact on him.

Prof. Sahib Singh states that Punjab was in the grip of a devastating drought between 1595 and 1598. The drought further led to the spread of diseases and Lahore was one of the worst affected areas.  Guru Arjan toured the affected areas and set up camps for treating the people and to provide them with food and shelter.

In 1601, at the age of 6, young Hargobind started his formal education under the guidance of Baba Buddha.  Baba Buddha noticed that besides Gurbani, young Hargobind possessed a keen interest in martial arts, and encouraged him to learn the ways of a warrior, which included riding, hunting, wrestling and the use of weapons. Hargobind grew up to be an all-round man, healthy and strong as well as enlightened and knowledgeable in Gurbani.

Around this time, the political climate of Punjab was also changing. Although the Mughal emperor Akbar was a tolerant ruler, it was clear that his governors and certain high caste Hindu Brahmins were against the policies of the Sikh Gurus – policies that guaranteed equality of humanity, freedom from oppression and no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or religion.

Indeed, when Akbar passed away in 1606 and his son Jehangir came to power, the tide turned against the Sikhs. Jehangir had premeditated action against Guru Arjan, and within 7 months of him becoming the new Mughal ruler of India, Jehangir had Guru Arjan executed. Thus at a tender age of 11 years, Guru Hargobind assumed the Guruship of the Sikhs.

The brutal murder of Guru Arjan was a huge shock to the Sikhs. Jehangir’s order to arrest Guru Hargobind and confiscate his property were not carried out, for the local officials believed that the death of the Guru would keep the Sikhs subdued for a long period of time. The result was quite the opposite. The Sikhs rallied around the 11 year old Guru Hargobind, and Bhai Gurdas and Baba Buddha the two veterans of Sikh faith.

Even at such a young age, Guru Hargobind realized that to protect the Sikh faith, it was essential that Sikhs learn the art of self defense. He envisioned that Sikhs from now onwards would be soldiers of the highest order – these trained Sikh soldiers were expected to be brave in standing up to Mughal oppression, but at the same time, never to be the aggressors. This was the foundation of the Saint Soldiers.

At his succession as the 6th Guru, Hargobind wore two swords, one to represent temporal interest or Miri, and the other to represent spiritual interests or Piri. Amritsar was well established as a city of the Sikhs and the Masand system instituted by Guru Ramdas was already functioning well. Guru Hargobind instructed his Masands that in addition to money, food and service, the Guru shall accept horses and weapons as Daswandh, or the voluntary contribution of Sikhs to the Guru’s funds.

These offerings were used to train Sikhs in martial arts. Soon, Sikhs from all across the country poured into Amritsar. The Guru gave each of them a horse and imparted simple training in the use of weapons. In a short time his army swelled up to about 500. These Sikhs did not want any pay. The Guru kept their spirits high by taking them out on hunting expeditions and arranging games and wrestling matches. In addition, the city of Amritsar was fortified by a small fortress called Lohgarh or a castle of Steel.

In 1609, right across from the Harmandar Sahib in Amritsar, Guru Hargobind built the Akal Takht, or the Throne of the Timeless God. Here, besides prayers and preaching, talks were held on questions affecting the welfare of the community. The processes were democratic and major decisions were taken by the consent of the Sikhs. Also, to rouse the morale of the Sikhs, certain Vars, or ballads featuring tales of heroism, composed and set to heroic tunes by Guru Arjan were sung.

In the courtyards of the Harmandar Sahib and Akal Takht, thousands of people could gather and listen to the discourse from Guru Hargobind. All of these programs put a new lease of life into the hearts of the Sikhs, who had been dejected at the brutal murder of Guru Arjan. In addition, thousands of more people came into the folds of Sikhism, leaving behind the oppressive social structures of both the Hindus and the Muslims.

According to Prof. Sahib Singh, a noted Sikh historian, Jehangir was occupied with his internal affairs in Kabul and later in Gujarat up to about 1618. So he had little time to interfere in the political environment of the Punjab. This gave the Sikhs a period of time to organize themselves in preparation for what they thought was an inevitable skirmish with the Mughal rulers again. There is some confusion on the exact happenings during this time, primarily due to differing accounts of Mughal and Sikh sources of history. We will follow Prof. Sahib Singh’s version which seems the most plausible given the historic circumstances.

In 1613, Baba Gurditta, the eldest son of Guru Hargobind and his wife Damodari was born. He was followed by Bibi Viro in 1615, Suraj Mal in 1617, Ani Rai in 1618, Atal Rai in 1619 and Teg Bahadur who went on to become the 9th Sikh Guru in 1621.

During all these years, Guru Hargobind engaged himself in the work of preaching the message of the previous Sikh Gurus. After Guru Nanak, he was the first Sikh Guru to travel outside the Punjab. He went as far as Kashmir in the North and to Pilibhit, about 200 miles to the East of Delhi. His message of Ek-Onkar resonated well everywhere he went and thousands of people embraced Sikhism, for it emancipated them from the rigid and oppressive social order.

In about 1620,  Jehangir made a trip from Lahore to Agra – the trip lasted 70 days and 23 of those days were spent on a short stretch along the river Beas in Punjab. On this trip he learned first hand that all of Punjab was aligned with the Sikh ideology and thought. Alarmed by these observations, in about March 1621, Jehangir ordered that Guru Hargobind be imprisoned in a jail at the Gwalior Fort – this Jail was reserved for royals and prominent religious figures who had fallen out of favor with Jehangir. In total there were 52 other prisonsers at the Gwalior fort. During the Guru’s imprisonment Sikhs from all over the country came to Gwalior to pay their respects to Guru Hargobind. However, owing to the large and growing Sikh population, as well as a few well intentioned Muslims, Jehangir feared a revolt in the local population, who were still agonized by the unjust execution of Guru Arjan.

As a result, only after 4 months of captivity Guru Hargobind was ordered to be released. Guru Hargobind refused to leave the Gwalior fort alone and advocated for the release of the 52 other princes in captivity. For this reason, he is also known as BandiChhor – or the one who freed the convicts. Prof. Sahib Singh further asserts that while Guru Hargobind was on his way back to Amritsar, he was accompanied by Jehangir, who, separately was on the way to Kashmir. Several other sources also state that Jehangir, realized that he had been misled in handling the case of Guru Arjan. As a result, he wanted to wanted to befriend the Guru or at least maintain normal relations thereafter. It must be noted that in his autobiography Tuzuk-i-Jehangiri, Jehangir does not mention anything about Guru Hargobind.

On his successful return to Amritsar, the Raja of Bilaspur gave Guru Hargobind a gift of land between the foothills of the Himalayas and the river Sutlej. Here, he built himself a retreat and named the town Kiratpur, which is now situated about 125 miles east of Amritsar. Also, Guru Hargobind resumed his travel and preachings across the country. Wherever Guru Hargobind went he established Gurudwaras – in addition, he also erected temples and mosques at his own expense.

Guru Hargobind was not allowed to live long in peace. Jehangir had turned into a drunkard and died in 1627. He was succeeded by his son Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor famous for building the Taj Mahal, and then cutting off the hands of more than 20,000 people who worked on the monument. Shah Jahan revived the policy of oppression against non-Muslims and ordered the demolition of numerous Gurdwaras. This brought him into direct conflict with the Sikhs, who after the execution of Guru Arjan and imprisonment of Guru Hargobind were now determined to fight back. Both parties were primed for a clash at the slightest cause.

Shah Jahan’s empire spanned from Kabul and Kandahar, now in Afghanistan, to almost all of present day India and Pakistan. In 1628, during one of his hunting trips to Lahore, Shah Jahan ran into the Sikhs which led to a minor skirmish. As a result, Shah Jehan sent his governor, Mukhlis Khan to arrest the Guru. This was now the beginning of the wars between the Sikhs and the Mughals.

The Mughals attacked Lohgarh, the fortress surrounding Amritsar. This was a sudden and unexpected development. Guru Hargobind was already busy in the wedding preparations for his daughter Bibi Viro the next day. The Sikhs were reluctantly thrust into their first war and they fought bravely killing Mukhlis Khan. Victorious and to avoid any further skirmish, Guru Hargobind retreated to a small village Jhabal, eight miles from Amritsar, where he was able to perform the marriage of his daughter.

To avoid any further trouble, Guru Hargobind retreated to Kartarpur, near Jallandhar. However, in 1630, on the provocation of Bhagwan Dass and his son Rattan Chand, another skirmish ensued between the Mughals and the Sikhs. After 3 days of hard fighting, Abdulla Khan, the governor of Jallandhar was killed and the Sikhs emerged victorious again.

Then in 1632, Guru Hargobind’s Sikhs were attacked by a powerful army led by Lalla Beg and Qamar Beg. A fierce battle ensued in the neighborhood of the villages of Mehraj and Nathana, close to present day Bhatinda. More than 1200 Sikhs were wounded or killed, whereas many more, including the Mughal commanders Lalla and Qamar Beg were killed, leaving the Sikhs victorious in another fight.

After about another year, the Mughals regrouped, this time under the instigation of Painda Khan – once a loyal of the Guru. The Guru’s forces were encircled in Kartarpur, but were once again able to turn the tables on the Mughals. Fighting along with other Sikhs were Guru Hargobind’s two sons, Baba Gurditta and Teg Bahadur. The Imperial army was again routed and the renegade Painda Khan was killed.

Guru Hargobind had won 4 battles with the Mughals. His purpose was always defensive and as a result he did not acquire even a small piece of territory in these victories. There was something far greater involved in this warfare – A new heroism was rising in the Punjab, and the main aim was to create a will to resist the mighty power of the oppressive Mughal rulers.

After 4 battles in quick succession, Guru Hargobind realized that he could not withstand another battle with the Mughals in the plains. In 1634, he shifted his base to Kiratpur, a city he had built previously along the foothills of the Himalayas. He spent the last 10 years of his life at Kiratpur in meditation and in prayer. One drawback of all these battles was that the Sikhs had to retreat away from Amritsar, and subsequently the Minas, or the descendents of Prithi Chand, occupied the Harmandar Sahib and it remained under their control for the next 60 years. The Minas played havoc with the Sikh ideology and introduced a lot of mythology into the teachings of Guru Nanak and other Sikh gurus. We will devote another episode to the facts surrounding the Minas in another podcast and try to understand how the Sikhs started to veer away from the actual teachings of the Gurus.

The influx of superstition from the Minas placed a great deal of burden on Guru Hargobind. He had to set up many more community centers and train more masands. In the earlier years, this work was taken up by Bhai Gurdas and Baba Buddha, and after the death of these men, by Baba Gurditta. Guru Hargobind entrusted more and more responsibility to Baba Gurditta, whom, it appears, he was training for Guruship.

The last few years of Guru Hargobind’s life were saddened by a series of personal tragedies. Within a few years 3 of his sons died after one another, including Baba Gurditta in 1638.One of Gurditta’s sons, Dhir Mal turned against the Guru. Finally, he chose Gurditta’s second son Har Rai to succeed him as the 7th Sikh guru – and we shall know more about him in the next episode. Guru Hargobind died peacefully in Kiratpur on March 3, 1644 at the age of 48.

The 37 years of Guru Hargobind’s Guruship, were by far the most testing in the history of the Sikhs. These years tested the resolve of the community to stay together in adversity – and the Sikhs passed this test with flying colors. Their resolve to remain united was strengthened. Under the leadership of Guru Hargobind, the Sikh emphasis changed from a peaceful propagation of the teachings of the Sikh gurus to the forthright declaration of the right to defend their faith by arms. Guru Hargobind infused in the Sikhs the confidence that they could challenge the might of the Mughals and stand up against oppression. Although he infused his followers with a passion to defend their Sikh faith with a call to arms, Guru Hargobind was himself an extremely compassionate person, working for the welfare of all humanity. Although he did not compose any hymns, Guru Hargobind taught his Sikhs by way of example that the service of the poor and the oppressed is the service of God. In 1608, Guru Hargobind built the Akal Takht at Amritsar thereby uniting the Sikhs as a single political and spiritual entity.

In the next episode, we will talk about the seventh Sikh Guru, Guru Har Rai, and his role in leading the Sikhs through a tumultuous period of history. So keep listening and follow us on facebook at or on our twitter handle – @ahistoryofsikhs.

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.