A Brief Biography of Guru Gobind Singh
“For this purpose Have I come in this world—
To uphold and propagate dharma in every place.
And to seize and destroy the doers of sin and evil.
Understand ye holy men, full well in your souls,
That I took birth in this age so that
Righteousness may flourish, the good, the saints be saved.
And the villainous tyrants be uprooted from the land.”
(Guru Gobind Singh in the Bachittar Natak)
Guru Gobind Singh was born at Patna on the seventh day of the light half of Poh 1723 Bk., corresponding to December 22, 1666 A.D. His father had gone thither in the course of an extensive religious tour. Leaving his family at Patna, he had gone further east towards Assam and Dacca. It was during his absence in these parts that his only son was born at Patna.
Guru Tegh Bahadur had to cut short his tour and hurry back to the Panjab. Aurangzeb’s policy of bigoted persecution had been intensified with his general order of 1669. It had terrorized the people, the Hindus and the Sikhs. How could he stay away from his people when they were suffering so acutely? He felt that his place was with them. So, he hurried back to the Panjab without even seeing his first new-born baby. On reaching among his people, he gave them whatever solace he could give with his soul-inspiring Songs of the Lord. He taught them to strike fear in none and be afraid of none. He did a good deal of thinking as to what should be done to save the people and to mend the tyrants.
Soon he sent for his family from Patna. At Anandpur Sri Gobind Rai, as Guru Gobind Singh was then called, passed the happiest days of his life. His education and training were taken in hand. He proved to be an apt pupil and learnt all that his teachers had to teach in an incredibly short time. In addition to literary education, he received training in horsemanship, use of arms, and the art of war.
But these blissful days were cut short too soon, and the divine child had to take upon his tiny, but miraculously strong, shoulders a very heavy burden, indeed. With his policy of bigoted persecution Aurangzeb had created a veritable reign of terror among the non-Muslims of his empire. He had embarked ‘on a militant policy of religious persecution’ and ‘allowed the religious fanatic to get the upper hand of the king’. In the words of S.M. Latif ‘He had resolved that the belief in one God and the Prophet should be, not the prevailing, but the only religion of the empire of Hindustan.’ Temples were demolished and replaced by mosques. All governors and men in authority were forbidden to employ Hindus in the offices of State. All servants of the State were ordered to embrace Islam under pain of dismissal.’ Jazia or poll-tax was re-imposed throughout the empire. Hindu merchants were subjected to a custom’s duty twice as heavy as demanded from Muhammadan traders. Thus, with this double-edged policy of inducement and coercion, millions of Hindus had been circumcised.
The Governor of Kashmir was most zealously active in furthering the proselytising policy of his master. He had converted more than half of the people under him, and was still busy as ever. Finding life intolerable and impossible under the Mughal rule, several prominent Pandits of Kashmir repaired to Anandpur and poured out their tale of suffering and woe before Guru Tegh Bahadur. They begged him to protect them and their faith. Their words plunged the Guru in deep thought. Seeing this, Sri Gobind Rai who had just come in, asked the reason. The Guru replied, ‘Our Muslim rulers have become brutalized, dehumanized. It seems to me that the only method of rousing their slumbering souls and curing them of brutality is that a great and holy person should sacrifice himself. But where to find such a person?’ The child, who was less than nine years old, replied, ‘For that purpose, dear father, who is worthier than you? If, by sacrificing your life, you can save the lives and religion of these and countless other people, go by all means.’
On hearing this reply, the Guru was satisfied that duty called him to lay down his life. He told the Pandits to go back and inform their Governor that they would embrace Islam if their Guru would do so. The Pandits acted accordingly. The Governor reported the whole matter to Auranzeb. The latter issued orders that Guru Tegh Bahadur should be arrested and brought to his court in Delhi. But before the soldiers sent to arrest him, could reach Anandpur, the Guru started towards Delhi. On the way thither he undertook an extensive, whirlwind tour with a view to exhorting the people to shed all fear, to face tyranny with resolute calm, and to prepare themselves for effective resistance when the time should come for it. Reaching Agra, he caused his identity to be revealed to Mughal officials. He was arrested, chained, taken to Delhi, and thrown into prison under a heavy guard. He was called upon to embrace Islam, which he refused to do. Of his companions, Bhai Mati Das, was sawn alive. It was under this condition that, in order to be sure that his son would be able to rise to the occasion and prove equal to the responsibility about to devolve on him, he wrote to him a letter, saying:
‘My strength is exhausted; I am in chains; and no remedy or expedient is within my power now.
God alone, saith Nanak, is my refuge; may He come to my rescue as He did in the case of the elephant (in the classical story)!
My associates and companions have all abandoned me; no one has remained with me to the last.
In this calamity, saith Nanak, God alone is my support.’
To this, his son sent the following reply:
‘Strength is there; the chains are loosed; every resource is at hand.
Nanak, everything is in your hands (i.e. within your power); it is you alone who can assist yourself.’
This reply heartened the Guru about the future of his people and his country. Nominating his son as his successor, Guru Tegh Bahadur made ready to face death. He declared his belief that:
‘When Guru Gobind is there, the Lord’s name and His saints will flourish.’
He refused to show any miracles to appease his persecutors or to embrace Islam to save his life. In the beginning of November, 1675, Aurangzeb’s final orders were received. Accordingly, Guru Tegh Bahadur was publicly beheaded on November 11, 1675, in the Chandni Chauk of Delhi. The stern and bigoted monarch had the Guru’s body publicly exposed in the streets of Delhi, to serve as a warning to the “infidels”.
The effect of this blow was so staggering that nobody from the high-class Sikhs came forward to claim the body for cremation. When questioned by the officials whether they were Sikhs, they had the weakness to deny their religion. Guru Gobind Singh saw in this the danger of a backsliding among the Sikhs. He vowed, therefore, that he would make it impossible for the Sikhs to hide their creed in future; that he would give them such distinguishing marks that even one of them among millions would be easily recognized.
‘With the execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur, Sikhism was threatened with extinction, root and branch, and there was no other method of self-defence except the use of arms!1 The situation needed a leader under whose banner the Sikhs could give a taste of their steel to the fanatic persecutors of their race, and avenge the insult done to their religion. This leader was found in Guru Gobind Singh.
It was, thus, clear to Guru Gobind Singh that the only way to save the Sikhs and Sikhism from extinction was to oppose and cripple the power of the fanatic Mughals. This, he knew, was a gigantic, arduous task. Armed resistance was the only course left to him. But what were the means at his disposal? Before the might of the Mughals he seemed verily like the tiniest sparrow before a flight of the mightiest eagles. To oppose and cripple that power successfully, and to bring it low enough to heed the welfare of all its subjects, was like attempting to cut through a huge mountain with a tiny needle.
His resources were slender and scanty. The work of military organization and martial inspiration, begun so well by his grandfather, Guru Hargobind, had been checked after him. That had been owing, partly, to the peaceful nature of the succeeding Gurus, and partly, to the vigour of Aurangzeb’s rule. Hence, the martial spirit instilled into the Sikhs’ hearts by Guru Hargobind had gone to lumber. It had to be awakened, developed, and activated. He had to create his army, to forge his sword, with which he was to fight.
Again, though the Hindu masses were bitter against the galling yoke of Mughal tyranny, the so-called natural leaders of the Hindus, Hindus of position and rank, were most officiously loyal to the government. They were bitterly hostile to all popular progressive movements; for they feared that any show of sympathy with them, or even neutrality regarding them, would displease their Muslim masters, and deprive them of their rule, land, and power.
In view of the conditions facing him, his slender and scanty resources, and his yet tender age, Guru Gobind Singh was in no hurry to strike the blow or to invite a conflict. He needed sufficient preparatory period in which to form and mature his plans. He had also to chalk out the lines on which to work in order to implement those plans and achieve his life’s objective. He would strike only when the time was ripe for the venture, when he and his men were in position to strike most effectively. He had to infuse a new life and spirit into the dead bones of the people, to awaken them to a new and noble corporate life, to inspire them with till-then-unknown sentiments of nationality and nationalism, and to imbue them with the will and zeal to dare, do, and die for the common cause.
Therefore, the immediate problem for him was to find a quiet snug retreat where he could work in seclusion. He moved to Paonta in the state of Nahan, where, on the land offered by the ruler he built a fort. He stayed there for several years. In the seclusion of his retreat amidst the Himalayan hills, he devoted himself to the task of preparing himself and his people for struggle against tyranny and oppression. So he began to gather, inspire, and train his soldiers. Knowing full well the power of poetry in rousing the drooping spirit, and being a born poet of the highest degree, he not only developed an inimitable style of Hindi poetry with which he sought to arouse the martial spirit of his followers, but also he employed fifty-two renowned poets to render into appropriate Hindi poetry the warlike deeds of Rama, Krishna, and other heroes. The soul-stirring effect of these martial narratives was heightened by their being sung by gifted court bards. Such poetry wedded to martial music could not but go straight to the hearts of the listeners and stir them to high resolves for mighty deeds.
But this preparatory work was interrupted rather too soon. The hill chiefs began to smell in it a potent danger to their authority and power. Many of them made a joint attack on him, unprovoked and for no cause. A severe battle was fought at Bhangani in April 1689. The Guru won the battle, but he did not follow it up with any political advantage. He returned to Anandpur. He busied himself there again in the preparatory work. Besides that, he built four forts — Anandgarh, Lohgarh, Keshgarh, and Fatehgarh. He also went on increasing his military resources in men and material.
But his preparatory work was again interrupted the following year. For some years the hill chiefs had not been remitting their yearly tribute to the Delhi government. In 1690 orders were sent from Delhi to the governor of Jammu to realize the arrears from the defaulting hill chiefs. The latter thought it prudent to seek the Guru’s advice and aid. He advised them to resist the demand; for, if they paid it once, more and more would be demanded afterwards. He promised to join them in the field of battle. A bloody battle was fought at Nadaun. It ended in the success of the allies.
After some time the Guru was attacked by a combination of some hill chiefs and the imperial forces in 1694-95. The battle of Guler, or Husaini war, as it is called by the Guru in the Bachittar Natak, resulted in a decisive victory for the Guru.
The news of such repeated disasters to the imperial armies caused a lot of anxiety to Aurangzeb. He sent his son, Prince Muazzim, afterwards known as Bahadur Shah, to manage the affairs of the Punjab which were in disorder. This was in 1696. The Prince himself took his position at Lahore, and sent Mirza Beg with a strong force to chastise the Guru and the hill chiefs. The latter were severely punished, but the Guru was left alone. That was owing to the intercession of Bhai Nand Lal, who was a devout Sikh and a secretary to the Prince.
Bhai Nand Lal seems to have brought about some sort of understanding between the Prince and the Guru. The former became a friend and admirer of the latter. He arranged matters in such a way that, for the time being at least, the Guru made up his quarrel with the Mughal government. He advised his followers to render unto Caesar what was due unto him. This is clear from the following words of his in the Bachittar Natak:
‘The House of Baba Nanak and that of Babar
Both derive their authority from God Himself.
Recognize the former as supreme in religion,
And the latter, as supreme in secular affairs.’
He was prepared to recognize the Mughal government’s supreme authority in secular affairs even over his own followers, provided the government recognized him as having supreme authority over the religious affairs of his Sikhs.
As a result of this understanding, the Guru got some respite to think and mature his future plans. He had found that the people were so deeply steeped in superstition and old ideas of religion, that they could not rise above their caste and racial prejudices to act together for any national or common cause. He felt convinced that before any political reforms could be attempted with success, there had to be brought about a general renaissance and religious awakening. Hence, he resolved to break the old shackles with greater precision and thoroughness than had been done before. He wanted to reorganize society on the basis of common belief and common aspirations, so that all members were knit together in one close family. In that way he wanted to complete the edifice whose foundations had been laid by Guru Nanak, and which had been raising its head higher and higher under the care of the succeeding Gurus. In the words of Dr. G.C. Narang, ‘(Guru) Gobind (Singh) himself, in fact, as well as his work, was the natural product of the process of evolution that had been going on since the foundation of Sikhism. The harvest which ripened in the time of Guru Gobind Singh had been sown by Guru Nanak and watered by his successors. The sword which carved the Khalsa’s way to glory was, undoubtedly, forged by (Guru) Gobind (Singh), but the steel had been provided by Guru Nanak.’
Guru Gobind Singh decided to cut at the root of all such institutions as stood in the way of the unification and consolidation of the nation. He wanted to rear a “self-contained and compact body of men who would be pure enough to free themselves from the oppression of priests and rulers, and would, at the same time, strong enough to maintain that freedom’. For that purpose he decided that the rosaries of the lovers of God should yield place to the sword, so that these men of God should be able to defend themselves as well as their weak neighbours. These would be his saint-soldiers. He further decided that these warrior-saints of his should have an exterior so specific and distinctive that even a single one of them should be distinguishable among millions; so that, by a mere look at him, one should be able to say, ‘There goes a Sikh of the Guru.’
On the Baisakhi day of 1756 BK, March 30 of 1699, he called a big meeting of his Sikhs at Anandpur. He wanted to test them. When all were seated, he drew out his sword and said, ‘This goddess of steel, this giver of freedom and defender of faith, honour and life, is daily clamouring for the head of a dear Sikh of mine. Is there anyone among you ready to lay down his life at a call from me? If so, let him come forward.’ At this strange demand, the whole assembly was stunned and thrown into consternation. The Guru repeated and re-repeated his demand. At the third call, Bhai Daya Ram, a Khatri of Lahore, stood up and offered his head. The Guru dragged him into a tent close by with apparent hurry and violence. A blow and a thud were heard; a stream of blood trickled out, and the Guru, his sword dripping with fresh-drawn blood, came out and called for another head. There was dead silence again. At last, at the third repetition of the call, Bhai Dharam Das, a Jat of Delhi stood up and offered his head. He, too, was dragged into the tent. Again a stream of fresh-drawn blood came out from the tent. In this way three more heads were demanded by him, and given by Bhai Muhkam Chand, a washerman of Dwarka; Bhai Sahib Chand, a barber of Bidar; and Bhai Himmat Rai, a kahar or water-carrier of Jagannath.
Soon thereafter, the Five who had given their heads to the Guru came out of the tent dressed in saffron, like the Guru. They were his Beloved Five. Then he administered Amrit to them, that is, baptised them with sweetened water stirred with a two-edged sword (Khanda). Their names were changed to Daya Singh, Dharam Singh, Mohkam Singh, Sahib Singh and Himmat Singh. After that he spoke at length on his mission. According to Ahmad Shah Butalia and Bute Shah, among other things, he said:
‘I wish you to embrace one creed and follow one path, obliterating all differences of religion. Let the four Hindu castes, which have different rules laid for them in the Shastras, abandon them altogether and, adopting the way of co-operation, mix freely with one another. Let no one feel himself superior to another. Do not follow the old scriptures. Let none pay heed to the Ganges and other places of pilgrimage which are considered holy in the Hindu religion, or adore the Hindu deities, such as Rama, Krishna, Brahma, and Durga, but all should believe in Guru Nanak and his successors. Let persons of four castes receive my baptism, eat out of the same vessel, and feel no disgust or contempt for one another’.2
When the Guru had baptized his Beloved Five, he stood up before them with folded hands and begged them to baptize him in the same way as he had baptized them. This strange request astonished them. But he told them that he wanted to be one of them: that as he was their Guru, they collectively should be his Guru. ‘You and I are now one. There is no difference between me and my baptised Sikhs. You are my Khalsa, my embodiment, nay, my other self, my beloved ideal (isht suhird,) and, therefore, quite competent to take my place when I return to the Home Eternal. He further ordained that thenceforth the ceremony of baptism was to be conducted by a comission of five chosen Sikhs to be called the Beloved Five (panj piare).
The Guru then enjoined upon his Sikhs the need of leading clean lives, avoiding all intoxicants, and shunning tobacco in any form. They were to wear the uniform of the Khalsa composed of five kakkars — kesh (uncut hair), kangha (comb), kachcha (a pair of shorts), kara (iron bracelet), and kirpan (sword).
The Guru invited the hill rajas to take the Amrit and be leaders among the Khalsa. They refused to do so; for they thought it was against their ancient religion. Moreover, they regarded the Guru’s activities as a threat to their position and power. They met together and wrote to the Guru asking him to quit the state of Kahlur or pay tribute. The Guru refused to do either. The Hindu rajas thereupon decided to drive him out.
But they had already fought against him a number of times and suffered defeat every time. They appealed to the Emperor for help. The Emperor was then in the Deccan. He ordered the viceroys of Sarhind and Lahore to march against the Guru. They were to drive him out of Anandpur and either capture or kill him. They attacked Anandpur in 1701. The hill chiefs joined them with their armies. The Muhammadan Gujjars and Ranghars of the locality also came in force. The Sikhs fought with undaunted courage and bravery and held their ground for three years against the repeated attacks of the combined armies. But all supplies having been cut off, they were put to great hardships by hunger and thirst. Some of them felt unable to bear them any longer. They decided to leave. The Guru asked them to sign a bedawa or “disclaimer’ and go away. The Guru was as firm as ever; but the sight of the suffering Khalsa and the most solemn’s oaths and promises of the enemy for a safe exit, at last, moved him to leave the town. This he did towards the end of December, 1704.
However, as soon as, he came out, the allied armies, casting to the winds their oaths on the Quran and the cow, fell upon him near the bank of the Sarsa. Fierce fighting followed in the darkness and the rain. When the day, dawned on the site of slaughter, the Guru was still calm and unperturbed. He held the morning diwan or religious service just as usual. In the midst of the booming of guns and the hissing of arrows, the Guru quietly sang the praises of God. In the ensuing confusion, the Guru’s baggage, including some very precious manuscripts, was washed away in the flooded Sarsa. The Guru was separated from a part of his family. Along with his two elder sons — Baba Ajit Singh and Baba Jujhar Singh — and a band of forty trusted, devoted Sikhs, he was able to reach Chamkaur, in the district of Ambala.
His wife, Mata Sundri, mother of his four sons, and his virgin wife, Mata Sahib Kaur, mother of the Khalsa passed a night at Ropar. On the next day they left for Delhi with a trusted Sikh. His two younger sons — Baba Zorawar Singh and Baba Fateh Singh — with their grandmother took shelter with an old servant of theirs. That mean fellow betrayed them to the nearest Mughal official at Morinda. The latter arrested them and sent them on to Wazir Khan, governor of Sarhind. The latter had the children bricked up alive and then beheaded. Their grandmother died on hearing the news of her grandsons’ execution.
The imperial armies in their thousands followed the Guru to Chamkaur. He had occupied a mud-built house there. The Mughal armies besieged the village. The Sikhs fought against thousands to the last. Both the remaining sons of the Guru and three of his Beloved Five were slain. Only eight Sikhs were left. They prevailed upon him to go away and save himself. He went out along with three Sikhs.
For days he travelled about bare-foot in the thorny wilds of Machhiwara; for days he had nothing to eat but the tender leaves of the Akk plant; for many cold nights he was without any shelter but the star-lit sky. But he was as firm as ever. Two Pathan brothers of Macchiwara dressed him in the blue garb of a Muhammadan fakir and carried him in a litter borne on their shoulders. They informed all enquirers that they were escorting Uchch ka Pir. Thus borne, the Guru reached Jatpura. There he was welcomed and befriended by another Muhammadan named Rai Kalha. The Guru asked him to send somebody to Sarhind to get news about his two younger sons. The messenger sent by Rai Kalha travelled to and fro in an incredibly short time and with eyes flowing with tears and in a voice choked with sob, he narrated story of their martyrdom. The Guru received the news with perfect composure. He said, “My sons are not dead. They will live forever. It is the tyrants that will be uprooted.”
From Jatpura, the Guru moved on to Dina, where he stayed for about nine months. During his stay there he wrote to Aurangzeb his famous letter called Zafarnama. From Dina he went on towards the place later named Muktsar. The Mughal army, under Wazir Khan’s orders, was in hot pursuit. The Guru collected his men and turned to face the pursuers. A severe battle was fought at the site of Muktsar. The imperial army was defeated. Among the Sikhs who were slain in the battle were the forty men of Majha who had deserted him at Anandpur. At the request of their leader, Bhai Mahan Singh, who was still alive though mortally wounded, the Guru tore their ‘disclaimer’ (bedawa). Then the Guru blessed them all, one by one. He called them Mukte or the emancipated ones. They are remembered daily in the Sikh prayer.
After the battle of Muktsar the Guru continued to move southwards. When he reached near Baghaur in Rajputana, he heard the news of Aurangzeb’s death and of the war of succession that had broken out. Prince Muazzam, who had become an admirer of the Guru during his expedition to the Punjab in 1696, requested him for help in getting the throne. The Guru sent a detachment of his trusted Sikhs. A battle was fought at Jajau near Agra on June 8, 1707. Muazzam was victorious. He became Emperor Bahadur Shah. He invited the Guru to meet him at Agra, treated him with utmost respect, and presented him with a rich dress of honour and a jewelled scarf (dhukhdhukhi) worth sixty thousand rupees.
The Emperor and the Guru were together for a pretty long time. The former heard the Guru’s tale of sufferings and sacrifices with sympathy, and gave out hopes of redressing the wrongs. At that time the Emperor had to march into Rajputana and thence to the Deccan. The Guru accompanied him in the hope of getting his wrongs redressed and of bringing about peace between the Mughals and the Sikhs. The Emperor went on giving evasive answers. When the Guru felt convinced that there was no prospect of the Emperor’s agreeing to any such proposal, he broke off with him and came to Nanded in the beginning of September 1708. There he met a Bairagi named Madho Das. He converted him to Sikhism and renamed him Banda Singh. In history, he is popularly known as Banda Bahadur.
When the Guru was proceeding to the South, he was secretly pursued by two Pathans from Sarhind. They had been hired by Wazir Khan, governor of Sarhind, and deputed to murder the Guru. They came to Nanded and began to attend the Guru’s religious meetings. They feigned devoutness and became acquained with the Guru. One day after the evening service, the Guru was having a nap, and his only attendant became sleepy. One of the Pathans stabbed the Guru. But before he could deal another blow, the Guru despatched him with a blow of his sword. The other tried to run away, but was killed by the Sikhs who had come up on hearing the noise. The Guru’s wound was immediately sewn up. In a few days it appeared to have healed up. But when he tried to bend a stiff bow brought to him by a Sikh, the wound burst open and caused profuse bleeding. The Guru was cheerful and composed all the time. On October 7, 1708, about two hours after midnight, he roused his Sikhs from sleep, bade them goodbye, and left for his Eternal Abode.
Before his departure for Eternal Home, the Guru had ordained that there was to be no personal Guru in future, but the whole Sikh community or the Panth was to guide itself by the teachings of the Gurus incorporated in Sri Guru Granth Sahib. The Panth under the guidance of Sacred Granth was to exercise the powers of the Guru.
1. Bannerjee, The Evolution of the Khalsa, p. 66
2. Bute Shah, Twarikh-i-Punjab, pp. 405-406; Ahmad Shah’s Supplement to Sohan Lai’s Uamlat-ut-Twarikh, p. 5.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2015, All