opaque watercolour on paper
The Government Museum, Chandigarh
|Born||15 April 1563
Goindval, Tarn Taaran, India
|Died||30 May 1606
|Other names||The Fifth Master|
|Known for||Compiled and installed the Adi Granth; built the Harmandir Sahib.|
|Predecessor||Guru Ram Das|
|Parent(s)||Guru Ram Das and Mata Bhani|
Guru Arjan ([ɡʊru əɾdʒən]; 15 April 1563 – 30 May 1606) was the first martyr of Sikh faith and the fifth of the ten Sikh Gurus, who compiled writings to create the eleventh, the living Guru, Guru Granth Sahib. He was born in Goindval, Punjab the youngest son of Guru Ram Das and Mata Bhani, the daughter of Guru Amar Das.
Guru Arjan lived as the Guru of Sikhism for a quarter of a century. He completed the construction of Amritsar and founded other cities, such as Taran Taran and Kartarpur. The greatest contribution Guru Arjan made to the Sikh faith was to compile all of the past Gurus' writings, along with selected writings of other saints from different backgrounds which he considered consistent with the teachings of Sikhism into one book, now the holy scripture: the Guru Granth Sahib. It is, perhaps, the only script which still exists in the form first published (a hand-written manuscript) by the Guru.
Guru Arjan organised the Masand system, a group of representatives who taught and spread the teachings of the Gurus and also received the Dasvand, a voluntary offering of a Sikh's income (in money, goods or service) that Sikhs paid to support the building of Gurdwara Sahib, Langar (shared communal kitchens) originally intended to share with sense of love, respect and equality, still an important element today in any Gurdwara. While Langar began with earlier Gurus of Sikhism, Guru Arjan is credited for laying the foundation of the systematic institution of Langar as a religious duty, and one that has continued ever since.
Guru Arjan was arrested under the orders of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and asked to convert to Islam. He refused, was tortured and executed in 1606 CE. Historical records and the Sikh tradition are unclear whether Guru Arjan was executed by drowning or died during torture. His martyrdom is considered a watershed event in the history of Sikhism.
Guru Arjan was the son of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Guru in Sikhism. Arjan had two elder brothers: Prithi Chand (Prithia) and Mahadev. The eldest brother Prithia wanted to be the fifth Guru, but Guru Arjan was designated as the fifth Guru, by Guru Ram Das. Bhai Gurdas, a noted 17th century Sikh chronicler, knew all three brothers from childhood. Prithia, stated Bhai Gurdas in his chronicles, attempted several times to falsely claim and assume the title of being the rightful Sikh Guru while Arjan was alive, and after Guru Arjan's death, including by using the pseudonym of Nanak in hymns he composed, but the Sikh tradition has recognized Arjan as the fifth Guru, and Hargobind as the sixth Guru.
Arjan became the fifth Guru in 1581 CE inheriting the title from his father, and after his execution by the Mughal officials, his son Hargobind became the sixth Guru in 1606 CE.
Continuing the efforts of Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan established Amritsar as a primary Sikh pilgrimage destination. He wrote a voluminous amount of Sikh scripture including the popular Sukhmani Sahib.
Compiling the Adi Granth, Guru Arjan gave Sikhs an example of religious and moral conduct, as well as a rich body of sacred poetry. His starting of collection of offerings by way of Masand system, in a systematic way, accustomed them to a regular government. He traded in horses, though not extensively, and encouraged his followers to follow his example, to be as zealous in trade as they were in their faith. Guru Arjan became famous among his pious devotees and his biographers dwell on the number of Saints and Holy men who were edified by his instructions. He was equally heeded by men in high positions. During his time, the teaching and philosophy of Guru Nanak took a firm hold on the minds of his followers.
The economic well-being of the country is closely linked with the monsoon. With a view to alleviating the sufferings of the peasants, Guru Arjan helped the villagers in digging six-channel Persian wheel (Chhehrta) wells, which irrigated their fields. Chheharta is a living monument of his efforts in this direction.
During the period of Guru Arjan, the Sikh Panth steadily extended its influence in Punjab, notably among the rural population and Jats. The Mughal rulers of Punjab were alarmed at the growth of the Panth. The Mughal emperor Jahangir wrote in his autobiography Tuzk-e-Jahangiri (Jahangirnama) that too many people were becoming persuaded by Guru Arjan's teachings and if Guru Arjan did not become a Muslim the Sikh Panth had to be extinguished. Jahangir believed that Guru Arjan was a Hindu who pretended to be a saint, and that he had thinking of forcing Guru Arjan to convert to Islam or to execute him, for a long time.
There was a Hindu named Arjan in Gobindwal on the banks of the Beas River. Pretending to be a spiritual guide, he had won over as devotees many simple minded Indians and even some ignorant, stupid Muslims by broadcasting his claims to be a saint. They called him guru. Many fools from all around had recourse to him and believed in him implicitly. For three or four generations they had been pedaling this same stuff. For a long time I had been thinking that either this false trade should be eliminated or that he should be brought into the embrace of Islam. At length, when Khusraw passed by there, this inconsequential little fellow wished to pay homage to Khusraw. When Khusraw stopped at his residence, [Arjan] came out and had an interview with [Khusraw]. Giving him some elementary spiritual precepts picked up here and there, he made a mark with saffron on his forehead, which is called qashqa in the idiom of the Hindus and which they consider lucky. When this was reported to me, I realized how perfectly false he was and ordered him brought to me. I awarded his [Guru Arjan's] houses and dwellings and those of his children to Murtaza Khan, and I ordered his possessions and goods confiscated and him executed [siyasat o yasa rasanand].
— Emperor Jahangir's Memoirs, Jahangirnama 27b-28a, (Translator: Wheeler M. Thackston)
In 1606 CE, the Guru was imprisoned in Lahore Fort, where he was tortured and executed. Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, after the punishment and execution of Guru Arjun by Shaykh Farid Bukhari (Murtaza Khan) under the orders of Jahagir, as follows,
These days the accursed infidel of Gobindwal was very fortunately killed. It is a cause of great defeat for the reprobate Hindus. With whatever intention and purpose they are killed – the humiliation of infidels is for Muslims, life itself. Before this Kafir (Infidel) was killed, I had seen in a dream that the Emperor of the day had destroyed the crown of the head of Shirk or infidelity. It is true that this infidel [Guru Arjun] was the chief of the infidels and a leader of the Kafirs. The object of levying Jizya (tax on non-Muslims) on them is to humiliate and insult the Kafirs, and Jihad against them and hostility towards them are the necessities of the Mohammedan faith.
According to Sikh tradition, before his execution, Guru Arjan instructed his son and successor Hargobind to take up arms. His execution led the Sikh Panth to become armed and pursue resistance to persecution under the Islamic rule.
Some scholars state that the evidence is unclear whether his death was due to execution, torture or forced drowning in the Ravi river. J.S. Grewal notes that Sikh sources from the seventeenth and eighteenth century contain contradictory reports of Guru Arjan's death.
J. F. Richard states that Jahangir was persistently hostile to popularly venerated non-Islamic religious figures, not just Sikhism.
Bhai Gurdas was a contemporary of Guru Arjan and is a noted 17th century Sikh chronicler. His eyewitness account recorded Guru Arjan life, and the order by Emperor Jahangir to torture the Guru to death.
A contemporary Jesuit account, written by Spanish Jesuit missionary Jerome Xavier (1549–1617), who was in Lahore at the time, records that the Sikhs tried to get Jahangir to substitute the torture and death sentence to a heavy fine, but this attempt failed. Dabistan-i Mazahib Mobad states Jahangir tortured Guru Arjan in the hopes of extracting the money and public repudiation of his spiritual convictions, but the Guru refused and was executed. Jerome Xavier, the Jesuit missionary in India in the early 17th century, in appreciation of the courage of Guru Arjun, wrote back to Lisbon, the following
In that way, their good Pope died, overwhelmed by the sufferings, torments and dishonours.
— Jerome Xavier, Letter to Gasper Fernandes in Lisbon, On the execution of Guru Arjan,
Michael Barnes states that the resolve and death of Guru Arjun strengthened the conviction among Sikhs that, "personal piety must have a core of moral strength. A virtuous soul must be a courageous soul. Willingness to suffer trial for one's convictions was a religious imperative".
Historical revisionism, reconstruction and disputes
There are several stories and versions about how, where and why Guru Arjan died. Recent scholarship has questioned many of these, calling them as fictional interpretation, reflecting an agenda, or "exaggerating fragmentary traces of documentary evidence in historical analysis". The alternate versions include stories about the role of Guru Arjan in a conflict between the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and his son who Jahangir suspected of trying to organize a patricidal coup, or alternatively a Hindu minister of Jahangir named Chandu Shah, who in one version takes revenge on Guru Arjan for not marrying his son Hargobind to Chandu Shah's daughter, and in another Lahore version where Chandu Shah actually prevents Guru Arjan from suffering torture and death by Muslims by paying 200,000 rupees (100,000 crusados) to Jahangir, but then keeps him and emotionally torments him to death in his house. All these versions and meta-narratives became popular in 19th century British colonial literature, such as those of Max Arthur Macauliffe. Several alternative versions of the story try to absolve Jahangir and the Mughal empire of any responsibility, but have no trace or support in the documentary evidence from early 17th century, such as the records of Jesuit priest Jerome Xavier and the memoirs of Jahangir.
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Guru Ram Das
1 September 1581 – 25 May 1606
Guru Har Gobind