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 fourth Sikh Guru, Guru Ramdas and his role in building upon the rock solid foundation established by Guru Nanak, Guru Angad and Guru Amardas before him. In the process Guru Ramdas established the city of Amritsar as the Sikh Center and outlined a moral code of conduct for Sikhs. Before we get into details let’s revisit the social and political climate of India in the 15th 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.
When Guru Angad, took over Guru Nanak’s mantle, collected his teachings, and combined them together. He also 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, was able to take up a whole gamut of important issues and on each one defined the Sikh position with clarity and precision. He composed new hymns most notable of which is the “Anand” sung at all religious ceremonies of the Sikhs. Further he established manjis or Sikh centers of learning to spread the word of Guru Nanak. 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. By the time Guru Ramdas was appointed as the fourth Sikh Guru, the Sikhs were already a community of people who had a culture that was distinct from all other – 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.
Guru Ramdas was born in the Chuna Mandi District of Lahore, now in Pakistan, on September 24, 1534. He was the eldest son of Hari Das and Anup Devi, and was named Jetha. He is described as a man of fair complexion, a pleasing personality, a smiling face and a handsome built. Bhai Jetha’s parents passed away when he was young and he relocated to his maternal grandparents in Basarke, the village of Guru Amardas. He earned his living by selling boiled pulses and wheat. Most likely, he met the family of Guru Amardas during this time and was married to Bibi Bhani, the daughter of Guru Amardas. By all historical accounts the wedding took place in Basarke and that it was performed many years before Guru Amardas was appointed the Guru. In due course they had 3 sons, Prithi Chand, Mahadev and the youngest Arjun Dev – who was later appointed as the fifth Sikh Guru.
When Guru Amardas was appointed as the third Guru he relocated to Goindwal around 1552 AD. Bhai Jetha went with him to help in the construction of the new Sikh township of Goindval. For the next 22 years, Bhai Jetha immersed himself in the service of Guru Amardas and in shaping the Sikh society.
In 1556 AD, Akbar became the Mughal Emperor. By this time Sikhism had charted a path that was radically different from the polarizing Hindu and Muslim society in India – Sikhs were a society that breathed a spirit of liberalism rather than that of orthodoxy and conservative thoughts. Sikhs had by now rejected the authority of the Vedas and relied on hymns composed by the Gurus to guide them in their daily lives. The rise of the Sikhs did not go well with the established Hindu priests. They felt threatened as their long cherished beliefs were challenged and their position in society was at stake. In about 1567, they collectively lodged a complaint with Akbar. They complained that Guru Amardas had abolished the caste system, treated all humanity on an equal pedestal and no longer encouraged the chanting of the Vedas. After hearing the complaint, Akbar requested Guru Amardas to attend his court to resolve the issue.
However, due to his old age, Guru Amardas sent Bhai Jetha along with 5 other Sikhs to represent him before Akbar. Bhai Jetha was interrogated on all the points highlighted in the complaints of the Hindu priests. His answers were in the best spirit of Sikh teachings and convinced Akbar of the hollowness of the complaints. Akbar who was perhaps the most liberal Mughal ruler, remarked” Jetha’s words show how the mind may be purified and hypocrisy renounced”. This incident tremendously raised the stature of Bhai Jetha in the minds of the Sikhs and Guru Amardas. When Akbar finally visited Goindval in 1571, he was so impressed by the way of life of the Sikhs in Goindwal 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.
Guru Amardas passed away peacefully on September 1, 1574 in Goindval, by the river Beas, at a very advanced age of 95. Before he died, he appointed Bhai Jetha, the husband of Bibi Bhani, as the fourth guru – Guru Ram Das. Guru Amardas placed an offering of 5 paise and a coconut, bowed before Guru Ramdas and recognized him as the new Sikh Guru. Goindval flourished as a center for Sikhs, but its proximity to the Grand Trunk Highway built by Sher Shah Suri, exposed Goindval to scrutiny by the local Mughal governors. It was felt that a place away from the main highway and yet not far removed from it would make for a better Sikh center than Goindwal. As said earlier, in 1571 Akbar had visited Goindval and offered the land of Amritsar to the Sikhs. Hence Amritsar, just 50 kms from Goindwal was chosen as the new Sikh center. While Guru Amardas had first conceived the idea of building Amritsar, Guru Ramdas was the chief architect of this vision. The town of Amritsar was also known as Guru ka Chak, Chak Ramdas or Ramdas Pura.
This construction required a lot of financial resources and increased participation of the sangat in kar seva or voluntary labor. The Sikhs responded to Guru Ramdas with great generosity. This overwhelming response led to a rise in the status of the Sangat – or the reliance on the Sikh congregation to accomplish difficult tasks for the Sikh community. To streamline the offerings, Guru Ramdas introduced a system of Masands – people who collected offerings from the community. As we will see in later episodes, these Masands played an important role in keeping the Sikh society organized.
Women contributed in large numbers to the voluntary labor force. This further established the equality of men and women in the Sikh society. Guru Ramdas invited tradesmen to set up business in the town and with the revenues, he was able to expand his activities to distant parts of India. The most distinguished of his missionaries was Bhai Gurdas, who spent a lot of time preaching in Agra. The era of Guru Ramdas saw an all round development of the Sikh faith. Guru Ramdas was a master composer, and introduced a number of new ragas or meters in his compositions. His hymns touched the heart and had an ecstatic effect, virtually hypnotizing the listeners. 679 of his hymns are a part of the Guru Granth Sahib. Continuing with the legacy of Guru Amardas in providing Sikhs with their distinct ceremonies, Guru Ramdas composed special hymns for the Sikh wedding ceremony – known as the Anand Karaj. The ceremony serves to provide the foundational principles towards a successful marriage and also places the marriage within the context of unity with God. Guru Ram Das, composed the four shabads, Lavan, to be sung and recited as the core of the Anand Karaj. In 1579, the fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev Ji and Mata Ganga were the first couple to be married through the Anand Karaj ceremony.
Guru Ramdas introduced several new terms in the Sikh lexicon, further signifying a widened horizon. He was the first to call Guru Nanak the Jagat Guru, and implied that his teachings were for all mankind, irrespective of any caste structures or religious affiliation. He also used the word “Gurbani” as it is used in the modern context. He also coined the term “Gursikh” which finds mention in numerous hymns. This indicates the broad acceptance of Sikhism by the people of Punjab.
In the shabad, “Gur Satgur Ka Jo Sikh Akhaye”, Guru Ramdas codified the daily code of conduct for the Sikhs. The Sikhs are exhorted to rise early in the morning, and with every breath practice Naam Japna – or remembering God through one’s actions. A Sikh is also encouraged to perform udam – or perseverance, and also encouraged to “aap jape aure naam japave” – or inspiring others to practice Sikh virtues in their deeds. These values are consistent with the ideals of Naam Japna, Kirt Karni and Vand Chakna first laid down by Guru Nanak and was the precursor to today’s Rahet maryada or the Code of Conduct of the Sikhs.
In the time of Guru Ramdas, Sikhs belonged to all strata of society – ranging from wealthy trader to small shopkeepers, state employees, artesans, farmers etc. The Sikh movement had cut through the caste lines in a huge way and people were drawn to the Gurus teachings. The number of Sikh followers increased manifold – it must be noted that this increase had come about only through a word of mouth approach and none of the Gurus ever forced Hindus or Muslims to convert to Sikhism.
As the size of he city of Amritsar increased, the Sikh population increased and there was a greater inflow of money. Prithi Chand, the eldest son of Guru Ramdas managed the treasury. While he served with admirable devotion, Prithi Chand did not imbibe the Sikh values and was bypassed for Guruship. Guru Ramdas appointed his youngest son, Arjan Dev to succeed him as the fifth Guru.. This infuriated Prithi Chand, who threatened to seize the Guruship by force. He even propagated his own form of Sikhism, but failed to get much traction amongst the Sikhs.
Guru Ramdas led the Sikhs for 7 years as their Guru and passed away on September 1, 1581 in Amritsar, leaving the leadership in the very capable hands of Guru Arjan Dev. Guru Arjan Dev was unfazed by the activities of Prithi Chand and diverted his efforts in the subsequent building of Amritsar. We will learn more about him in the next episodes. Guru Ramdas was a true visionary for his ability to foresee the city of Amritsar as a center for the Sikh faith. His everlasting legacy is the building of the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar – a place that has gained immense historical importance and is one of the most revered places for the Sikhs. His appointment of masands to take care of collections from the followers paved a way for later Gurus to organize the Sikh community in times of conflicts with the Mughals.
Above all, Guru Ramdas foresaw a need for a moral and ethical code of conduct for Sikhs and showed them a way to remember God in their actions. 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, embody trust in one another and in living life according to the teachings of the Sikh Gurus. In the next episode, we will talk about Arjun Dev, who went on to become Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh Guru. We will talk about his role in compiling the Guru Granth Sahib. We will also understand the execution of Guru Arjan Dev by Jehangir, which became the first turning point in the history of the Sikhs and led to the militarization of the Sikhs to protect their faith. 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.
Artwork: Depicting Anand Karaj, A Sikh Wedding.