Sikhs, their Gurus and a Brief History
Evolution of a
spiritual individual, to a spiritual group, then a religion, to a
formation of a political empire, and finally the empire’s decline.
who eventually became Sikhs, are originally of the Punjab. Their teachings
have been condensed from the teachings of ten Gurus (or teachers)
into one book (Guru Granth Sahib) which is considered God to the Sikhs.
From spiritual teachings, in the shadow of the Mughals, was born a
formidable fighting army, which grew to be a self-governing Empire.
15th Century India and Punjab:
• Delhi and much of Punjab of then was plundered by Tamarlane in 1398
• Sayyids ruled Delhi sultanate and Punjab during 1420 to 1450s
• Power shifted to Lodhis who after a brief period of stability and
progress were withering away by late 15th century
• The Bhakti movement after sweeping south was making inroads in north
by 15th century with saints like Meerabhai, Kabir, Ravi Dass and Guru
• This itself was a consequence of social and political instability,
inequality, race and caste divisions (Muslim vs. Hindus, indigenous
Muslims vs. Persian or Turks, upper caste Hindus vs. lower caste Hindus)
society full of bigotry, superstitions, religion reduced to codified
The Ten Sikh Gurus:
Guru Nanak Dev, 15 April 1469 - 22 September 1539
He was considered inquisitive as a child, questioning mind, philosophical
and contemplative, spiritual leanings, compassionate, sharing. He
would spend time with Hindu sages, Sufi Saints, Mendicants of all
types and was misfit as a family man.
Despite best efforts by his father, a merchant, he could never involve
himself in trade. Married, he had two sons, still remained detached.
Said to have attained enlightenment at 30 after he failed to emerge
from a river for three days. His first words after coming out were:
“Na koi Hindu, Na Maussalman….” (Neither is there a Hindu, nor is
there a Muslim) in what was to become his quest for universal brotherhood
set onto extensive travels, in total 5 journeys of 3 to 7 years each
visiting Haridwar, Kashi, Assam, Bengal; South to Ujjain, Gujarat
down to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka); West to Baluchistan, Baghdad, Mecca;
North to Kashmir, Kailas Mansarovar and Tibet, and Punjab, spreading
message of love, universal god, sharing, equality of all human beings,
love for nature. His messages were sung in simple poetry, accompanied
by his childhood friend Mardana who played Rubab.
would distribute whatever he had and would eat it with poor and the
wretched sitting with them on the floor, insisting others to follow
(this is what was to lead to the institution of Langar, or communal
made followers everywhere and especially in Punjab. These followers
found the message of love, equality, simplicity and free of rituals
and dogma, appealing.
of Guru Nanak, which becomes the basic philosophy of Sikhism:
Ek Omkar, Satnam, Karta Purakh, Nirbhow, Nirvair, Akal Murat, Ajuni
Saibhang, Gur prasad.
(One Supreme being, His name is the truth, He is the doer or creator,
He is fearless, has no enemies, he is formless, indestructible, His
name brings blessings).
Kirat Karo (Do honest work)
Vand Chhako (Share and eat)
Naam Japo (Remember HIM)
contributed 974 hymns to what became the Guru Granth Sahib. Questioned
authority of the Vedas. Attacked Hindu caste system, promoting equality
of all. Emphasized equality of women. Rejected renunciation and emphasized
leading a householder's life. Condemned the theocracy of the Mughals.
Died of natural causes.
2nd Guru Angad Dev, born 31 March 1504, Guru 7 September 1539 to 29
Guru Angad was Nanak’s favourite disciple, and carried forward Nanak’s
message. He also developed Gurmukhi script in which all the Sikh scriptures
were eventually written. He contributed 63 stanzas to the Guru Granth
Sahib. Standardized and popularized the Gurumukhi Script. Opened many
schools. Started tradition of Mall Akhara for physical and spiritual
development. Popularized and expanded institution of Guru ka Langar.
Died of natural causes
3rd Guru Amardas, born 5 May 1479, Guru 26 March 1552 to 1 September
Unrelated to the second guru, formalised tradition of langar making
it compulsory for his visitors to first partake langar before meeting
him, and abolished Sati ritual for Sikhs. His daughter injured herself
once to trying to ensure his uninterrupted prayers, and upon asked
by Guru to demand a favour, she asked for the Guruship to remain in
the family. The Guru granted the wish with a condition that the family
will face many deprivations and will be asked to make many sacrifices
for its followers. Contributed 869 verses including Anand Sahib to
the Guru Granth Sahib. Established Manji & Piri system (a Sikh
administrative order). Strengthened the Langar community kitchen system.
Advocated widow-remarriage. Asked women to discard the "Purdah"
(veil). Asked Akbar to remove the toll-tax (pilgrim's tax) for non-Muslims
while crossing Yamuna and Ganges Rivers. Died of natural causes.
4th Guru Ram Das, born 24 September 1534, Guru 1 September 1574 to
1 September 1581
Son-in-law of the third Guru, shifted the base to a new location and
set up a town around a pool created, with the donations given by followers.
This came to be known as Amritsar. Contributed 638 hymns to the Guru
Granth Sahib. Composed four stanzas of the Anand Karaj, a distinct
marriage code for Sikhs. Strongly decried superstitions, caste system
and pilgrimages. Died of natural causes.
5th Guru Arjan Dev, born 15 April 1563, Guru 1 September 1581 to 30
Ramdas’s son furthered the message of earlier Gurus, compiled the
teachings and hymns in a book (Adi Grantha, a precursor to the Guru
Granth Sahib) and installed it at Sri Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple
in Amritsar) in August/September 1604, a landmark event in Sikh history.
Tortured and executed by Jehangir who couldn’t tolerate the growing
followers of this new religion and also because the Guru had offered
sanctuary to the rebel prince Khusro. Hailed as first martyr of Sikh
6th Guru Har Gobind, born 19 June 1595, Guru 25 May 1606 to 28 February
Arjan’s son, realised that survival in those circumstances required
self defence and he gave birth to the tradition of Miri and Piri (martial
and spiritual) maintaining an armed legion of Sikh warrior-saints.
He ensured his followers were capable of defending against the oppressors.
He fought and won a few battles.
7th Guru Har Rai, born 16 January 1630, Guru 3 March 1644 to 6 October
Har Rai became the Sikh Guru at age 14 after the death of his grandfather
and sixth Sikh leader Guru Har Gobind. Guru Har Rai is notable for
maintaining the large army that the sixth Sikh Guru had amassed, yet
avoiding military conflict. He supported moderate Sufism instead of
conservative Sunnis. He excommunicated his elder son who appeased
the Mughals by changing the text of the Sikhs scripture, and nominated
his younger son Har Krishan to succeed him. Persecuted by Aurangzeb
against verses of Guru Granth Sahib. Died of natural causes.
8th Guru Har Krishan, born 7 July 1656, Guru 6 October 1661 to 30
Died at age of 8 due to smallpox contracted while healing the sick
during an epidemic.
9th Guru Tegh Bahadur, born 1 April 1621, Guru 20 March 1665 to 11
Tegh Bahadur, son of Har Gobind. Travelled to Bihar and Assam. Contributed
many hymns (Shlokas) to Guru Granth Sahib. Opposed the forced conversions
of Hindu Kashmiri Pandits by Muslims. Consequently persecuted, imprisoned,
tortured and executed by Emperor Aurangzeb.
10th Guru Gobind Singh, born 22 December 1666, Guru 11 November 1675
to 7 October 1708
Son of Tejh Bahadur was handed over the Guruship when he was 10 (or
early teens). He lived for about two decades in the jungles, up to
1684 at Paonta Saheb near Nahan, and then near Anandpur Sahib from
1696. During these two decades, he mastered Persian and Sanskrit in
addition to Hindi and Punjabi. He read scriptures, became an expert
horseman and archer. He was a poet and philosopher and a born leader.
He wrote ‘Chandi di vaar’ a treatise on the war between virtue and
the evil in 1683. His growing influence brought him in conflict with
Hill Rajas, and even Mughal commanders of the area whom he was able
to subdue. He created five forts around Anandpur and went about organizing
his followers into a fighting unit to take on the Mughals. On 13 April
1699, he established Khalsa (the pure) by choosing 5 disciples at
Anandpur, three of lower caste, one Brahmin and one Kshatriya, thereby
creating the Sikhs. He wanted to remove
the caste equation among his followers and asked them to use ‘Singh’
henceforth with their name, instead of caste. He also enjoined them
to fight for the truth and justice. The Khalsa were external symbols
given by the Guru (5 Ks: Kada, Kes, Kanga, Kachha and Kirpan, see
below). He lost two of his older sons to battle and the younger
two were buried alive into a wall by the Mughals. He declared Guru
Granth Sahib as the eternal Guru for Sikhs. Assassinated by the Mughals.
5 physical symbols (5 Ks) were an integral part of initiation to become
a Sikh, introduced by Guru Gobind Singh, to identify and bind members
of the Khalsa. For a Sikh the fact that the Guru has instructed the
Sikhs to wear the 5 Ks is an entirely sufficient reason, and no more
need be said. Each K has a unique significance:
Kesh - uncut hair
Various reasons and symbolisms have been put forward for the Sikh
practice of keeping hair uncut. Throughout history hair (kesh) has
been regarded as a symbol both of holiness and strength. One's hair
is part of God's creation. Keeping hair uncut indicates that one is
willing to accept God's gift as God intended it. Uncut hair symbolizes
adoption of a simple life, and denial of pride in one's appearance.
Not cutting one's hair is a symbol of one's wish to move beyond concerns
of the body and attain spiritual maturity. A Sikh should only bow
his head to the Guru, and not to a barber. It is a highly visible
symbol of membership of the group. It follows the appearance of Guru
Gobind Singh, founder of the Khalsa. Sikh women are just as forbidden
to cut any body hair or even trim their eyebrows, as Sikh men are
forbidden to trim their beards.
- a steel bracelet
A symbol of restraint and gentility, that a Sikh is linked to the
Guru. It acts as a reminder that a Sikh should not do anything of
which the Guru would not approve. Symbollicaly that God has no beginning
or end. Made of steel, rather than gold or silver, because it is not
- a wooden comb
Symbolises a clean mind and body since it keeps the uncut hair neat
and tidy. To symbolise importance of looking after the body which
God has created.
Kachha – “boxer shorts” type of underwear
Pair of shorts that must not come below the knee, particularly useful
for Sikh warriors of the 18th and 19th centuries, being very suitable
for warfare when riding a horse.
- a ceremonial sword or dagger
No fixed style or size of Kirpan, blade being from a few inches to
three feet long, kept in a sheath and worn over or under clothing.
The Kirpan symbolizes Spirituality, person being part Soldier part
Saint, defence of good, defence of the weak, struggle against injustice,
all-in-all, a metaphor for God.
Sects of the Sikhs
Like all major religions, individuals (later forming into groups)
have broken up into their own sects and used a part of the original
teaching while discarding some other or subsequent teachings. Sikhism
is no different, and from the time of Nanak, these include Nanakpanthis,
Udasi, Nirmala, Khalsa, Sahajdhari, Namdhari Kuka, Nirankari, Sarvaria,
Sanatan Sikhs, Namdharis and Nirankaris, ranging from ultra orthodox
to ultra liberal with regard to the basic teachings.
Zafarnama "Declaration of Victory" title given to the letter
sent by Gobind in 1705 to the Emperor Aurangzeb where Gobind reminds
Aurangzeb how the Mughals had broken their oaths taken on the holy
Koran. “Chun kar az hameh heelate dar guzasht, Halal ast burden bi
shamsher dast” (When all has been tried, yet Justice is not insight,
It is then right to pick up the sword, It is then right to fight),
perhaps the most often quoted words of the Zafarnama. Fearless defiance,
emblematic of the poetic power and philosophical underpinning of the
After the Gurus:
Formation of Khalsa
The Khalsa was formed on 13 April 1699. Before Guru Gobind’s death,
he asked Lachhman Das (a warrior turned ascetic, renamed as Gurbaksh
Singh but who became famous as Banda Bahadur) to take over the task
of leading Sikhs against Mughal oppression. From 1708 to his capture
and killing in 1716, Banda Bahadur led the Sikhs and carried out attacks
on the Mughals and scored several victories including defeat and killing
Wazir Khan, the governor of Sirhind responsible for execution of Guru’s
two sons. His major achievement was organizing peasantry as a fighting
force. Much of the acquired land he redistributed among them.
1716 to 1799
The death of Banda Bahadur left no clear Sikh leader. The movement
got fragmented and the community broke up into various bands of warriors.
These warriors survived on loot and plunder with one common aim of
destroying remnants of Mughals who were responsible for so much misery
to their Gurus. They were also united under a common symbol of Khalsa.
These bands were called Misls and each of them had its area of influence.
Together they formed Sikh Confederacy which would meet twice a year
at Amritsar and fought under the Khalsa banner.
Misls, where the 12 prominent ones each had a band of 200 to 10,000
horses, survived against Mughal persecution but became stronger during
the period 1720 to 1799.
of Mughals started after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 with their treasury
empty due to prolonged wars in South. Subsequent kings after Aurangzeb
were weak and the clan was faction ridden. Marathas were gaining ground
progressively in north. Raiders from North West were to become a recurring
feature in coming decades.
Afghans attacked Delhi and Punjab in the mid 1700s, looting plundering
and abducting women by the thousands. Misls fought asymmetric wars,
harassing the retreating Afghans and often looting back their loot
through guerilla tactics. Their major reason of success was the grass
root support they received from the peasantry who were exploited by
the Mughals with the Sikhs respectful to their women and followed
the principles of their Gurus.
one of these Misls rose Ranjit Singh whose father and grandfather
already controlled large territories. His early years coincided with
total power vacuum in Punjab. Mughals were a spent force. Marathas
had retreated. The Sikh Misls had no clear leader and were busy fighting
each other when they were not fighting Afghans, who in turn had ensured
there was no credible fighting force left from Lahore to Delhi. Lahore
was in the hands of three different Sikh Misls in 1790s who were often
busy quarrelling. In 1797, at 17 years old, Ranjit Singh led his small
army from victory to victory fighting both the Moghuls as well as
other powerful Sikh Misls. He was proclaimed King (Maharaja) of Punjab
in 1801, and died by long illness in 1839.
struggle ensued after Ranjit Singh’s death both within the family
as well as outside, and the British saw his death as an opportunity
to usurp Punjab. A combination of wars and political maneuvering ended
of Sikh Empire.