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Bhai Sahib was born in a Dhamman Khatri family of Sodhara near Wazirabad in Sialkot district (now in Pakistan). His father was a wealthy trader, but he himself being of a religious bent left home when he was still very young and roamed about with saddhus and ascetics in search of spiritual peace.
During his youth he also spent a lot of time in the company of Nanua Bairagi, who was also a disciple and comrade of last three Sikh gurus. Nanua Bairagi was a renonwed poet-mystic of Punjab  and he left a deep imprint on Bhai Kanhaiya' spiritual and humanitarian outlook in his formative years.
Baptism into Sikhism
His quest ended as he met Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621–75) and accepted initiation at his hands. Kanhaiya established a dharamsdhal at Kavha village in the present Attock district of Pakistan which he turned into a preaching centre. His special mission was selfless service of humanity with no distinction of nationality, caste or creed. In 1704–5, he was on a visit to Anandpur when the city was invaded by a combination of hill troops and the imperial Mughal army.
Exemplary Service (Aduti Sewa)
During the frequent sallies and skirmishes between the Sikhs and the enemy, Bhai Kanhaiya was often seen carrying a mashak (a sort of pouch made of goat's skin that was used to carry water from one place to another), to serve water to anyone who was thirsty. He took upon the task of quenching the thirst of the wounded soldiers in the battle of Anandpur Sahib in 1704. He did this sewa with love and affection without any discrimination between the Guru's Sikh soldiers and the Mughal armies' soldiers. His act of compassion stirred up stern criticism amongst his fellow Sikhs, who complained to Guru Gobind Singh Ji, pointing out that Bhai Kanhaiya Ji was serving water to the wounded soldiers from the enemy camp. They were especially annoyed because the Mughals had surrounded the city and stopped all their food supplies, and here was Bhai Kanhaiya sharing with them what little water they had. They had tried to stop him many a time, but he would not pay any heed. Guru Gobind Singh summoned Bhai Kanhaiya and explained that he had received a complaint about his actions on the battlefield.
Guruji said, “These brave Sikhs are saying that you go and feed water to the enemy and they recover to fight them again – Is this true?”
Bhai Kanhaiya Ji replied "Yes, my Guru, what they say is true. But Maharaj, I saw no Mughal or Sikh on the battlefield. I only saw human beings. And, ... Guru Ji, .. they all have the same God’s Spirit? – Guru Ji, have you not taught us to treat all God's people as the same? OUR SIKH HEROES DESTROY ENEMIES BY KILLING THEM, BUT I DESTROY ENMITY BY GIVING THEM WATER."
The Guru was very pleased with the reply. Bhai Kanhaiya Ji had understood the deep message of Gurbani correctly. Guru ji smiled and blessed Bhai Kanhaiya. Guru Ji said, "Bhai Kanhaiya Ji, You are right. You have understood the true message of Gurbani". He then continued and told the Sikhs that Bhai Kanhaiya had understood the deeper message of the Gurus' teachings correctly and that they all have to strive to learn lessons from the priceless words of Gurbani.
Guru also gave Bhai Kanhaiya Ji medical Balm and said “From now on, You should also put this balm on the wounds of all who need it”'
Then turning to the sangat Guru Ji said, "Saadh sangat ji, Bhai Kanhaiya is a God-fearing saintly soul. His impartial and non-biased behaviour towards others has led him to achieve Sehaj-avastha. Let him carry on with his mission. Many more will follow in his footsteps in the years to come and keep the tradition of Nishkam sewa alive. "
Guru ji reminded the Sikhs of Guru Arjan Dev Ji Shabad:
- I have totally forgotten my jealousy of others,
since I found the Saadh Sangat (the holy congregation). ((1))Pause
No one is my enemy, and no one is a stranger. I get along with everyone. ((1))
Whatever God does, I accept that as good. This is the sublime wisdom I have obtained from the Holy. ((2))
The One God is pervading in all. Gazing upon Him, beholding Him, Nanak blossoms forth in happiness. ((3)(8)) (Guru Granth Sahib Page 1299 line 55528)
To have respect for every person is a fundamental pillar of Sikhism and a strong message advanced by the Tenth Guru.
Bhai Kanhaiya died in 1718 CE after retiring to Sodhara. His example, as a forerunner of the present day Red Cross, is a tribute to the universal message of compassion and kindness to all.
While the world hails Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, as the first humanitarian at the service for the care of war victims, Sikhism produced Bhai Kanhaiya, more than 100 years before the inception of the Red Cross.
Today Bhai Kanhaiaya Ji may not be with us physically, but as you walk in the compound of the memorial asthaan, Gurudwara Aduti Sewa, you can almost sense his presence amidst the surroundings. Suddenly an image of this tall, lean figure, carrying a mushak full of water behind his back begins to flash in front of your eyes; especially when you walk towards his old hut (Kutiaa), which has been restored to its original form.
The Kanhaiya Principles
- SERVE SELFLESSLY: The Sakhi tells us that we should serve Humanity selflessly (Nishkam) and with complete dedication; To open our minds to see divinity in all beings
- TREAT ALL EQUALLY: To Serve All of Humanity Equally without discrimination; provide help and assistance to everybody without prejudice or indifference; make no distinction between friend or foe;
- SERVE WITH COMPASSION & LOVE: It tells us how we should treat even our fallen enemies (when they do not have their swords drawn) with respect, compassion, humility and Love.
- THE FIVE WEAPONS: The Five Weapons to destroy the five internal Thieves - Deep level of Compassion (Daya), Complete compliance to Truth (Sat), Inner Contentment (Santokh), Overflowing Humility (Nimrata) and Total Love (Pyar). The Sakhi puts into practise the 5 major virtues promoted by Gurbani
- SHARE WITH OTHERS: To Share ones wealth with the people who are suffering to reduce their suffering and pain. Remembering the Three Pillars of Sikhism – Naam Japo; Kirat Karni and Wand kay Shako.
- SEWA: To carry out whatever Sewa that we are able to, to help make life more comfortable for anyone who is hurt, in pain, is suffering or otherwise in a bad way. This is part of Sikhism's Two Pronged Dedication to God of Simran and Sewa.
- You have no compassion; the Lord’s Light does not shine in you.
You are drowned, drowned in worldly entanglements. (4) (Guru Granth Sahib Page 903 line 38569)
- Practice truth, contentment and kindness; this is the most excellent way of life.
One who is so blessed by the Formless Lord God renounces selfishness, and becomes the dust of all. (3) (Guru Granth Sahib Page 51 line 2072)
- The fruit of humility is intuitive peace and pleasure. (Guru Granth Sahib Page 235 line 10192)
- Bow in humility within your heart, and you will not have to be reincarnated over and over again. (2) (Guru Granth Sahib Page 971 line 41521)
- Those who practice Truth, contentment and love, obtain the supplies of the Lord’s Name.
So banish corruption from your mind, and the True One will grant you Truth. (5) (Guru Granth Sahib Page 422 line 19317)
- Lal Chand (1955). Sri Sant Rattan Mala. Patiala. ISBN.
- Gurmukh Singh (1986). Sevapanthian di Panjahl Sdhit nun Den. Patiala. ISBN.
- "Bhai Kanhaiya would have hardly stepped in his teens that he, fortuitously , came across saint Nanua, an eminent gnostic and a heavenly-minded man. His company and precepts had lasting effect on his delicate mind." Bhai Kanhaiya, Beacon-light of Humanitarian Service & the Apostle of Peace, Chapter 6- A Contact with Bhakt Nanua, pp 19, Bhagata Singha Hīrā, Published by Sewa Jyoti Publications, 1988
- "Bhai Kanhaiya passed his early days in his company. He listened to his sermons with keen interest, enjoyed his charming communions with eagerness and moulded his character accordingly. His devotion to Nanua advanced every day. As a true devotee he adopted his every advice." Bhai Kanhaiya, Beacon-light of Humanitarian Service & the Apostle of Peace, Chapter 6- A Contact with Bhakt Nanua, pp 22, Bhagata Singha Hīrā, Published by Sewa Jyoti Publications, 1988
- Nanua Bhagat is a renowned ascetic and mystic and a Punjabi poet of the classical school, Rose-garden of the Punjab: English renderings from Punjabi folk poetry, pp 106 ,Gurbachan Singh Talib, Compiled by Kamal Krishan Mukerji, Published by Punjabi University, 1973