Artwork: An artist’s depiction of Sikhs, at the direction of Guru Harkrishan, providing drinking water to people suffering from smallpox in Delhi, circa 1664 AD.
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 shall talk about the eighth Sikh Guru, Guru HarKrishan and the political turbulence which had turned against the Sikhs in the 17th century in India. The time of Guru HarKrishan’s Guruship was marked not only by Aurangzeb’s oppression of the Sikhs, but also by the Minas , Dhir Mal and his own brother Ram Rai.
All of these people had established their own sects and broke off from the tenets of early Sikh gurus and their teachings. They were openly striving to divide the Sikhs with their numerous and focused attempts to dilute Sikh teachings. Guru HarKrishan was only 5 years old when he assumed the Guruship, but admirably he kept all of the Sikhs together. 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.
In the 15th century, the Indian society was 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. On the other hand, 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.
The other Gurus built the Sikh values on top of these ideals and at the same time never deviated from the teachings of Guru Nanak. When Guru Angad took over Guru Nanak’s mantle he collected Nanak’s teachings. He standardized Gurmukhi script and gave the Sikhs their own written language. Guru Angad’s emphasis on physical fitness for Sikhs laid the foundation for Guru Hargobind to later raise an army of able bodied men in a very short period of time.
Guru Amardas, as the third Sikh Guru, defined the Sikh ideals clearly and precisely for a whole range of important issues. He fought against the caste structures and against oppression of women. His most notable hymn the “Anand” is sung at all religious ceremonies of the Sikhs. Guru Amardas was also responsible for instituting the festival of Vaisakhi. and even today Sikhs from all walks of life and all parts of the world celebrate the festival together.
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. At every Sikh wedding today, the profound spiritual hymns known as the “Laavan” which were 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. Times were rather peaceful, and the Sikhs thrived in Punjab and all over India.
However, in 1606 when Jehangir was crowned the Mughal emperor of India, he started persecuting the Sikhs. Jehangir had premeditated action against Guru Arjan, and within 7 months of him becoming the emperor, Jehangir had Guru Arjan executed.
This horrendous act changed the course of Sikh History and under the leadership of the young 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.
In 1609, Guru Hargobind built the Akal Takht and infused in the Sikhs a confidence that they could challenge the might of the Mughals and stand up against social persecution. 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 and throughout his life worked for the welfare of all humanity.
During Guru Hargobind’s Guruship, Shah Jahan, the son of Jehangir, extended his hostility towards the Sikhs, and fought 4 battles. In all 4 battles, the rather small Sikh forces conclusively triumphed over the Mughal army. These battles however drove the Sikhs out of Amritsar, which due to its proximity to Lahore, was always under the supervision of the Mughals. To avoid any more battles and to concentrate on the welfare of the Sikhs, Guru HarGobind retired to Kiratpur, in the foothills of the Himalayas and a place not easily prone to attacks by the Mughals.
One drawback of retreating away from Amritsar to Kiratpur was that Guru Arjan’s rebel son, Prithi Chand’s successors, also known as the Minas occupied Amritsar. Prithi Chand’s son Meherban was close to the Mughal rulers, and he occupied the Harmandar Sahib which remained under him and his son Harji’s control from about 1635 to 1695. The Minas played havoc with the Sikh ideology and introduced a lot of mythology into the teachings of Guru Nanak and other Sikh gurus. The influx of superstition from the Minas placed a great deal of burden on Guru HarGobind and Guru Har Rai who had the additional responsibility of preserving the hymns of the previous Gurus. They accomplished this by setting up many more community centers and training more masands.
In 1634, Guru Hargobind’s sons Gurditta and Teg Bahadur had successfully defended the Sikhs at Kartarpur from an attack by the Mughals. By the next year, Guru Hargobind had retired to Kiratpur, and he sent Teg Bahadur to the village of Bakala, about midway between the present day cities of Amristsar and Jalandhar. In all likelihood, Gurditta was being trained by Guru HarGobind as the next Guru. However, Gurditta died in 1638, and his son Dhir Mal rebelled against Guru Hargobind. In fact, Dhir Mal acquired the original Adi Granth compiled by Bhai Gurdas at the behest of Guru Arjan and kept it under his possession. The original Adi Granth is still in the possession of the descendents of Dhir Mal in Kartarpur.
When Guru Har Rai was appointed as the 7th Sikh Guru, his immediate task at hand was to disassociate the Sikhs from the influence of the Minas, the clan of Dhir Mal and later his son Ram Rai, who had gained favor with the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. There is credible historical evidence that Guru HarRai worked closely with Teg Bahadur and that Teg Bahadur would often come to visit Guru HarRai. There are a lot of stories that say that Teg Bahadur was in meditation at Bakala. However, given the circumstances and the proximity of Bakala to Amritsar, it is quite likely that Teg Bahadur’s time in Bakala was spent in preserving the teachings of the Adi Granth, perhaps even making copies of it for distribution to Sikh centers all over India.
In 1656, Teg Bahadur visited Guru Har Rai in Kiratpur – this time also coincided with a visit from the masnds of far east who wished for Guru Har Rai to travel to the areas of Bihar and Bengal. Being preoccupied with the affairs at Kiratpur, Guru HarRai deputed Teg Bahadur to travel to the east. On June 9, 1656, Teg Bahadur left Kiratpur and traveled as far as Bihar, Bengal and Assam and spent almost 8 years in the region.
Guru Har Rai’s younger son HarKrishan was born on July 7, 1656 in Kiratpur. In 1660, Aurangzeb had summoned Guru Har Rai to Delhi to explain his conduct and the hymns recorded in the Adi Granth. The Guru did not go himself but sent his elder son Ram Rai, who was only 14 at the time, along with 5 Sikhs to represent him. Ram Rai did succeed in winning the confidence of Aurangzeb. In a political move aimed at dividing the Sikhs, Aurangzeb decided to keep Ram Rai in Delhi in the belief that if Ram Rai succeeded Guru Har Rai as the next Guru, he could control the destiny of the Sikh community.
Ram Rai’s sycophancy at the Mughal court turned Guru Har Rai against him, and he announced that his younger son HarKrishan would succeed him as the next Guru.
In 1661, Guru Har Rai passed away and appointed his younger son, HarKrishan as the eighth Sikh Guru. This act speaks to the confidence of Guru Har Rai in ensuring that a young boy ably guided by the elders in the Sikh community would be able to lead the Sikhs.
In the meantime, Aurangzeb gave Ram Rai a permanent place at Dehradun in modern day India, to set up his sect. This closeness to the Mughal emperor caused many masands to defect to Ram Rai’s camp. As he gained more influence with some renegade Sikhs, Ram Rai complained to Aurangzeb that he had been bypassed for Guruship by Guru HarRai and was a victim of grave injustice. This was a Golden chance for Aurangzeb to meddle in the affairs of the Sikhs. From his perspective, Sikhs had turned away from both Islam and Hinduism, and if he could stop people from embracing Sikhism, he could remove any barriers from converting all of India to Islam.
In December 1662, Aurangzeb left for Kashmir and came back to Delhi in January 1664. On the way he stopped at Lahore to assess the situation in the Punjab. Contrary to his expectations when he propped up Ram Rai, he found that the people of Punjab still aligned with Guru HarKrishan and had only grown stronger as a community. When he came back to Delhi, he immediately summoned Guru HarKrishan to Delhi.
Guru HarKrishan was 7 by now and had been the Guru for almost 2 years. He left Kiratpur with a large contingent of his followers and on the way to Delhi stopped at Ambala, Kurukshetra, Panipat and other small towns to encourage the local populations.
In Delhi, Raja Jai Singh welcomed Guru HarKrishan and made arrangements for the Guru at his bunglow – this place is now known as the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib situated in the heart of New Delhi. While staying there, he repeatedly refused to meet with Aurangzeb, who ruled all of India from only a few miles north in Old Delhi.
Instead he busied himself with helping the poor and the oppressed in the area. Sometime after his arrival in Delhi, Guru HarKrishan was paid a visit by Teg Bahadur, who was returning from his visits to the east. Here, he spent time with Guru HarKrishan and acquainted him about the welfare of the Sikhs across the breadth of India. After this meeting, he left the Guru in Delhi and went back to the village of Bakala.
In early 1664, an epidemic of smallpox broke out in Delhi. Smallpox was an infectious disease unique to humans and there was no prescribed cure for the disease until it was recently eradicated in 1979. It is estimated that between 300–500 million people died of smallpox in the 20th century alone. Smallpox was also a communicable disease and infected anyone who came into contact with an infected person.
The epidemic of 1664 was one of the largest outbreaks in India and owing to its communicable nature not many people were inclined to help the suffering population. In this environment, Guru HarKrishan and his Sikhs stepped forward to help the needy and provide care for the suffering population. The well established practice of Daswand and langar or community kitchen ensured that there was always enough money and food to take care of the ailing and the needy.
Unfortunately, while taking care of the smallpox patients, Guru HarKrishan himself was infected, which led to his untimely demise on March 30, 1664. He was only 7 years and eight months at the time. Before passing away, he had appointed Teg Bahadur as the ninth Sikh Guru, who was his grandfather Baba Gurditta’s younger brother – affectionately called as Baba Bakala, or the elder uncle who lived in Bakala. Guru HarKrishan was cremated by the banks of the river Yamuna in Delhi. The Gurudwara Bala Saheb stands here now.
Even at a young age, Guru HarKrishan proved his leadership of the Sikhs through his compassion and service of those suffering from the smallpox epidemic. In addition, in his own way, he stood up against Aurangzeb, the Mughal ruler and refused to meet him even when visiting Delhi the capital of the Mughal empire.
Finally, he showed his acumen in preserving the teachings of the Sikh Gurus and dealing with the Meenas, Ram Rai, Dhir Mal and the corrupt masands by appointing Teg Bahadur as the ninth Sikh Guru.
In the next episode, we will talk about the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Teg Bahadur and his legacy in standing up to Aurangzeb and his oppressive regime. 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.