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Sri Guru Arjun Dev
– The First And Foremost Martyr of Sikhism –

Dr Harnam Singh Shan*

This year marks the martyrdom-quadcentenary of Sri Guru Arjun Dev Ji; the Fifth Prophet – preceptor of the Sikhs. A great spiritual teacher and a gracious leader of the people, he holds a unique position in the apostolic line of Sri Guru Nanak Dev and in the religious history of the world in view of his significant contributions to mankind in general, and to Sikhism, in particular.

Born on 15th April, 1563, at Goindval (district Amritsar) to a very noble and far-sighted woman, Mata Bhani, Guru Arjun not only inherited a holy line, but also gave rise to a holy progeny. While he himself was the son of the Fourth Prophet-preceptor, Guru Ram Das, and grandson of the Third, Guru Amar Das, he was the father of the Sixth, Guru Hargobind, grandfather of the Ninth, Guru Tegh Bahadur, and great-grandfather of the Tenth, Guru Gobind Singh. He not only centralized and organized the Sikh religion but also developed and consolidated the Sikh community, and created nucleus for the evolution of its tradition and heritage. In addition to imparting religious and moral teachings to the people and attending to various works of public beneficence, he encouraged his followers to take to trade and commerce, which made them adventurous, enterprising, resourceful, fearless and rich as well.

His was a many-splendoured personality – a great sage and seer, thinker and scholar, planner and organiser, charismatic leader, prolific poet and maestro in music, humanitarian and builder of wells and water-tanks, and founder of new towns and cities. Amritsar, Kartarpur, Hargobindpur, Tarn Taran and Chheharta in Punjab owe their origin to his vision and endeavour. He worked unceasingly for the upliftment of the common man and the peasantry, establishing institutes for the needy and the sick. The construction of a very vast and deep quadrangular tank, near Amritsar, was initiated by him in 1590, around which he subsequently established the holy town of Sri Tarn Taran. He set up an asylum there in 1596 for the lepers whom he himself served and treated with loving care. He was also an embodiment of love, piety, humility, spiritual insight, service and sacrifice of the highest order.


Guru Arjun Dev’s most famous contribution is the building of Harimandar Sahib (Temple of God) in Amritsar, popularly known as Darbar Sahib or Golden Temple, whose foundation-stone he got laid by Hazrat Mian Mir (1550-1635), a renowned Muslim divine of Lahore1, on 28th December, 1588. To signify its accessibility to everyone – belonging to any caste, creed, colour, calling or country – and to symbolize the catholicity of outlook to be preached therefrom, it was given four door openings in all the four directions. This gold-plated magnificent edifice, standing in the midst of the sacred pool like a fully-blooming lotus in glittering water, is a marvel of design and engineering skill as well as a living tribute to his creative and spiritual genius. It is the holiest Sikh shrine and is, indeed, the source of Sikh life and faith.

Compilation of Guru Granth Sahib (then called Pothi Sahib) in 1604 at Amritsar was his greatest achievement in the realm of religion. Besides being the living, visible and eternal Guru of the Sikhs and the focal point of their devotion, it is the unique and universal scripture of the world and the only interfaith and interdenominational scripture of mankind, incorporating sacred hymns of 36 holy men across the Indian subcontinent from the 12th to 17th century A.D. They hailed from various provinces and belonged to different castes, creeds and callings. Out of these, 6 are Sikh Gurus and 30 are Hindu Saints and Muslim Sufis.

Guru Arjun Dev, besides being an unusually gifted poet, was also an expert in classical and folk music. He set all hymns included in the Holy Granth to appropriate musical measures and arranged them under 31 ragas, in which they are meant to be sung. Having mastery over many musical instruments of the time, he himself invented a new apparatus and named it Saranda, which he played often while singing hymns in praise of God. His own 2218 hymns along with his masterpiece Sukhmani (Psalm of Peace) are also included therein. All these holy utterances, touching every aspect of human life, “speak to”, says Nobel Laureate Pearl S Buck, “persons of any religion or of none. They speak for the human heart and the searching mind. Through them we see a Beyond that belongs to us all. And the result is a Universal Revelation.”2 That is why Dr. J.C. Archer, the famous Professor of Comparative Religion, maintained in 1946, “The religion of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib is a universal and practical religion… The world today needs its message of peace and love.”3 And it is, in fact, much more needed and relevant today than ever before. It was the renowned historian, Professor Toynbee, who proclaiming it to be, “part of mankind’s common spiritual treasure,” stated, therefore, in 1960, – It is important that it should be brought within the direct reach of as many people as possible... A book that has meant, and means, so much to such a notable community as the Sikh Khalsa deserve close study from the rest of the world.”4

Guru Arjun Dev dictated its holy text to Bhai Gurdas (1551-1636), the great savant, scholar and expounder of the Sikh faith, on the banks of a tank, called Ramsar, constructed by him during the year 1602-03. It was completed on 2nd August, 1604, and ceremoniously installed at Harimandar Sahib on 16th August, 1604. It is, indeed the fountainhead of the message of love, truth, peace and harmony, and is distinctively cosmopolitan, open to the people of every caste and creed for imbibing its inspiring instructions and humanitarian spirit.

Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar (1542-1605), the Mughal Emperor of the day, “appreciated the Guru’s character and teaching.”5 So much so that according to Abul Fazl, his Prime Minister, and Munshi Sujan Rai Bhandari, “he called at his residence in Goindval on 24th November, 1598. Guru Arjun was then in the prime of his life. His charismatic and handsome appearance, sweet and melodious voice, fascinating charming manners, exalted style of living, warm reception of the Emperor and his singing of the hymns deeply impressed Akbar.”6 Struck by his spiritual aura and constructive work for the welfare of the people, he offered a substantial grant to Guru Sahib and his institution. The gracious Guru sought, instead, remission of the lagaan (land revenue) payable by the peasantry, which was granted by Akbar soon after.


Guru Arjun Dev was the first martyr of the Sikh faith and his blood became the “seed of its church.” The path-breaking Sikh concept of martyrdom and the glorious tradition evolved around it during the pontificate of Guru Nanak and his three spiritual successors, and reached climax with his death by unspeakable tortures on 30th May, 1606.

His life and death fully exemplified the religious and ethical injunctions as well as the imperatives of this ideal concept, which originated from the following pronouncements of Guru Nanak, the great founder of the faith:

If you are keen to play the game of love, step into my street
with your head placed on your palm
(that is, in complete surrender and fervour).
Having set your foot upon it,
lay down your head without any fear or gr

Listen O people! do not revile death.
It is not an evil provided one knows how truly to die.
They do not utter aloud their suffering and bear all that heroically.
God, the All-knower, Himself knows all that. The death of the heroic men is holy
If they die for a righteous cause

During his detention in Lahore for several days, he was made to sit on a red-hot metal plate and take a dip in boiling water thereafter. Hot sand was poured over him in the scorching heat of summer and his blistered body was then delivered to the cold water of the river Ravi. Hazrat Mian Mir, on seeing Guru Sahib being tortured so inhumanly outside the Mughal Fort of Lahore, lost his composure and pleaded with him to allow him to intercede. Guru Sahib, sitting in divine contemplation, calmed him and enjoined him to lovingly embrace God’s will. Mian Mir prayed and left with a very heavy heart.

Describing this heart-rending episode in his report, dated 5th September, 1606, from Lahore to his home-country, Father Ferdinand Guerreiro, a contemporary Jesuit missionary, who died in 1617, tells:

“The King sent for the said Guru... handed him over to a rich gentile (called Chandu)... He gave every day new torments to the Saint. He ordered to give him much torture. For five consecutive days, he took away his food, he did him thousand and one dishonours. In that way their (Sikhs’) good Pope died, overwhelmed by the sufferings, torments and dishonours.”9

But Guru Arjun bore all that inhuman treatment willingly and courageously with complete poise and fortitude, resigning to the will of God as recorded by another contemporary, Bhai Gurdas, the highly learned amanuensis of his manuscript of the Holy Book, in his symbolic and highly meaningful poem, depicting the state of his soul thus:

As fishes are at one with the waves of the river,
So was Guru Arjun immersed in the River Divine.
As the moth merges itself into the flame at its sight,
So was the light of the Guru merged with the Light of God.
As the deer hears no sound other than the ringing of the hunter’s bell,
So he had nothing in mind except the Word of God in the extremest hours of suffering…10

As if, Guru Arjun Dev had anticipated all that and was fully prepared to suffer the ordeal for his convictions, as stated by him two years earlier while compiling Guru Granth Sahib, in verses such as the following:

Love of the servant of God has remained constant till the last.
He served Him while living and kept only
Him in mind at departure.
He never turned his face away from His command.
and always rushed to carry it out,
while maintaining his poise with joy.
While obeying His command, he felt joy even in hunger
and never discriminated between sorrow and joy…

He was so sure that –

As we are under the protection of God
not a single whiff of hot air touches us.
As the protective line of God’s name is drawn around us,
no pain afflicts us.12
He passed away, thus, in perfect peace of the spirit and abiding in His sweet will, cherishing Him and repeating:
Whatsoever be Your will and doing, is sweet to me.
I yearn only for the boon of devotion to Your Name.13


Such a tortuous execution of Guru Arjun Dev was carried out according to the Code of Chingez Khan under specific orders of the then Mughal Emperor, Nur-ud-din Muhammad Jahangir (1569-1627) on 16th May, 1606. In his Memoirs on 19th June, 1606, just 20 days after the culmination of that most tragic event, he himself stated:

There lived at Goindval on the bank of the river Beas a Hindu named Arjan in the garb of a pir and sheikh. So much so that he had by his ways and means captivated the hearts of many simple-minded Hindus, nay, even of foolish and stupid Muslims, and he had noised himself about as a religious worldly leader. They called him Guru, and from all directions fools and garb worshippers were inclined towards him and reposed full faith in him.

For three or four generations they had kept this dukan-i-batil (shop of falsehood or vane traffic, i.e., the Sikh faith) brisk. For a long time the thought had been presenting itself to me that either I should put an end to this shop or he should be brought into the fold of Islam… I ordered that he should be brought into my presence and, having handed over his houses, dwelling places and children to Murtaza Khan and having confiscated his property, I ordered that he should be put to death with tortures.14

Hence, the Emperor was so alarmed at the growing influence of the Guru and the far-reaching spread of the Sikh movement15 that he was given the choice of accepting Islam or facing painful death with tortures (yasa and siyasat).

The Guru spurning it, preferred to submit to the Will of God and suffer death for the sake of religious belief and freedom of conscience, while vindicating the cause of truth and upholding human rights rather than yielding to the will of a bigoted ruler,16 instigated by Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi (1569-1624) who titled himself as lmam-i-Rabbani and Guru Arjun as Imam-i-Kufar. It was he again who then congratulated Murtaza Khan, the said Mir Bakhshi of Jahangir and expressed his jubilation in the following words:

The execution of the accused kafir of Goindval at this time is a very good achievement, indeed, and has become the cause of a great defeat of the hateful Hindus. With whatever intention they are killed and with whatever objective they are destroyed, it is a meritorious act for the Muslims. Before the kafir was killed, I had seen in a dream that the Emperor of the day had destroyed the crown of the head of Shirk (infidelity). It is true that this infidel was the chief of the infidels and a leader of the kafirs.17

Guru Arjun Dev, on the other hand, resolutely and boldly faced horrible persecution, setting thereby an example to the rest of the world as to how a man of God should mock death; and declaring at the same time:

None is our enemy, nor is anyone stranger to us.
We are in cordial accord with
one and all. 18

His execution, instead of leading to the desired extermination of the Sikh religion, proved, according to Syad Mohammad Latif, “a great turning point in the history of the Sikh nation.”19 It led to far-reaching consequences, set the phenomenon of martyrdom in its course and went a long way in transforming the character of the Sikh movement and giving rise to a glorious saga of untold sufferings and unprecedented sacrifices for safeguarding the faith and defending the basic human rights, proclaiming in his unforgettable words,

The gracious Lord has now promulgated his Ordinances:
None shall domineer over others or cause pain to them.
All shall abide in peace and joy as the governance shall be gentle and compassionate.20


The martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev was followed by that of his own grandson and the Ninth Nanak, Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621-1675), who too laid down his life in 1675 at Delhi under the specific orders of Jahangir’s grandson, Emperor Aurangzeb (1618- 1707)21 “whose efforts,” according to Syad Muhammad Latif, “were directed to converting the whole world to the Mahomedan faith” and unsuccessfully “urged the Sikh Guru to embrace Mahomedanism.”22 The Guru died most valiantly at the altar of dharma for raising a forceful voice against the Emperor’s religious fanaticism, communal bigotry, persecutory zeal, repressive policies and tyrannical measures, adopted on a comprehensive scale to annihilate all traces of diversity among various culture-groups and eliminate Hinduism altogether23 in a deliberate effort to change, thereby, the entire face of the Sub-continent into a Muslim State.

Guru Tegh Bahadur himself volunteered to sacrifice his life in order to defend the fundamental rights of the people, to protect their faith and belief and to vindicate by his heroic action the freedom of conscience and worship which were being denied to them. He embodied in himself the undaunted spirit of supreme sacrifice in the pursuit of such lofty ideals and eternal values by which humanity must always live, described as under by Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), the illustrious founder of the Khalsa:

The Divine Master (i.e., Guru Tegh Bahadur) protected their24 religious right to apply frontal caste-marks and wear sacred threads25

He performed thereby a great feat in this Age of Darkness. He went to the utmost limit26 for the sake of the men of faith. He gave away his head without uttering even the whisper of a groan. He endured this unique martyrdom for the cause of Truth and protection of Faith. He readily offered his head for sacrifice but did not give up his ideal and conviction…27

Breaking the Potsherd of his body on the head of the monarch of Delhi,28
He departed for the Abode of God. No one has ever performed
a deed as noble and great as Tegh Bahadar29

Guru Tegh Bahadur’s only son and the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh, his four princely grandsons, five beloveds, forty liberated souls and thousands of other noble, devoted and steadfast men and women followed the trail blazed by Guru Arjun Dev’s great and matchless martyrdom. In the face of unspeakable sufferings and supreme sacrifices, they kept their faith unsullied and the Sikh spirit undefiled under the most trying circumstances, praying and singing in chorus:

Let my life go, let my body perish
But let not my faith shake or shatter.30


If this is correct that “the martyrs of a religion usually arise from persecution” and that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” Sikhism and its tradition of martyrdom is a superior and standard example of this unique phenomenon of human nature. Hence, says Dr. Geden:

“Perhaps the most striking example in India of the effect of a cruel persecution in consolidating and defining the religious life of a country, is that of the Sikhs... who found themselves brought into conflict with the dominant power of the Mughal emperors and were forced, in self-defence, to take up arms and maintain their existence and religious liberty... They were confronted with the alternative of acceptance of the formula and creed of the ruling faith or destruction. They refused to submit to either, but endeavoured rather to maintain their freedom and rights with the sword. The persecution which ensued had the effect of welding a community and organisation, in its origin purely religious, into a militant order and nation of soldiers, tenacious of military might and norms no less than of creed and faith.”31

Thus, the martyrdoms of Guru Arjun Dev (in 1606), Guru Tegh Bahadur (in 1675), Guru Gobind Singh’s 4 princely sons (in 1705) and his own life-long struggle and martyrdom (in 1708) as well as those of their hundreds of thousands dedicated disciples, ever since, have made a lasting imprint on the Sikh concept, doctrine, object and idea of martyrdom as exemplified by Guru Arjun Dev, and have also set such examples for the mankind, in general, and the Indians, in particular, which are unparalleled in the religious, ethical and social chronicles of the world.



1. Bute Shah, Ghulam Muhayy-ud-Din, Twarikh-i-Panjab, Ludhiana- 1848; Gian Singh, Giani, Tawarikh-i-Guru Khalsa, Sialkot-1891.

2. Buck, Mrs. Pearl S., in her ‘Opinion’ about Guru Granth Sahib in its ‘English Version by Dr. Gopal Singh, 4 Vols, New Delhi -1960; 7th, ed.-1978, vol. I, p. xiv.

3. Archer, J.C., The Sikhs in Relation to Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Ahmediyas: A Study in Comparative Religion, Princeton (U.S.A.) -1946, p. 105.

4. Toynbee, Prof. Sir Arnold in his Foreword to UNESCO’S Selections from the Sacred Writings of the Sikhs, London-1960, p. 9.

5. According to Badauni. cf. A History of the Sikh People by Dr. Gopal Singh, New Dell8-1988, p.189.

6. Abul FazI, Akbarnama, Trans. by A. H. Beveridge, Delhi-1989, Pt. III, p. 1115; Bhandari, Sujan Rai, Khulasat-tul-Tawarikh dt 1696, Delhi ed. - 1918, p. 425; Gupta, Dr Hari Ram. History of the Sikhs, Vol. I, New Delhi, 2nd ed.-1984, p. 134.

7. jau qau pRym Kylx kw cwau ] isru Dir qlI glI myrI Awau ]
iequ mwrig pYru DrIjY ] isru dIjY kwix n kIjY ]
Guru Granth Sahib, p 1412.

8. mrxu n mMdw lokw AwKIAY jy koeI mir jwxY ] 
mrxu muxsw sUirAw hku hY jo hoie mrin prvwxo ]
Ibid., p 579-80.

9. Guerreiro, Father Ferdinand, Annual Relations, 1606-1607, part IV, book III, ch. V of 138-151 (r), Lisbon-1609; reprinted in Vol. II, pp. 366-70, Coimbra-1931; Gopal Singh, A History of the Sikh People. New Delhi-1979; 2nd ed. -1988, pp. 194-195. See also Jahangir and the Jesuists, tr by C H Payne, London – 1930, pp 11-12.

10 Gurdas, Bhai, Varan, Amritsar-1606 circa.; no. 24, st. 23.
ofjzd/ r[o{ dohnkT[ ftfu, whB e[bhB j/s[ fBopkDh .
do;B[ d/fy gszr fiT[, i'sh nzdfo i'fs ;wkDh .
;pd ;[ofs fbt fwor fiT[, GhV gJh fufs nto B nkDh .

11. Guru Arjan Dev Guru Granth Sahib, op. cit., R. Maru, p. 1000.
;/te eh UVfe fBpjh gqhfsL
ihts ;kfjp ;/ftU ngBk, ubs/ okfyU uhfs .
i?;h nkfrnk ehBh mke[fo, fs; s/ w[y[ Bjh w'foU .
;ji[ nBzd ofyU frqj Ghsfo, T[fm T[nkj{ eT[ dT[foU
nkfrnk wfj G{y ;'Jh efo ;{yk, ;'r joy Bjh ikfBUl
i' i' j[ew[ GfJU ;kfjp ek ;' wkE? b? wkfBU .

12. Ibid., R. Bilawal, p. 819.

qwqI vwau n lgeI pwrbRhm srxweI ]
cauigrd hmwrY rwm kwr duKu lgY n BweI ]

13. Ibid., p. 394
qyrw kIAw mITw lwgY ] hir nwmu pdwrQu nwnku mWgY ] 
14 Jahangir, Nur-ud-Din, Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri,Aligarh ed. – 1864, p. 34; translated into English by Alexander Rogers and H Beveridge reprint, New Delhi – 1989, p 72-73; Ganda Singh, Dr., The Martyrdom of Guru Arjan in the Punjab Past and Present, Patiala – vol. xii, April, 1978, p.163.

15. As also observed, as follows, in 1645 by a contemporary Muslim chronicler, Zulfikar Ardistani, known as Muhsin Fani, “During the time of each Guru, the Sikhs increased till in the reign of Guru Arjan Dev became numerous and there were not many cities in the inhabited countries where some Sikhs were not to be found.” (Dabistan-i-Mazahib, dt. 1645, Nawal Kishore Press, Kanpur-1904, p. 234).

16 Smith, V.A., Akbar, Oxfold - 1926, p. 322; Sharma, Prin. S.B., Religious Policy of the Mugha! Emperors, New York-I962, p. 71.

17 In his letter published in the Maqtubat-i-Imam-Rabbani Hazrat Mujaddid Alf-i-Sani, vol. I, pt. III, no. 193, pp. 95-96; Ganda Singh, Dr., Guru Arjun Martyrdom, op., cit., pp. 36-37.

18 Guru Granth Sahib, p 1299
nw ko bYrI nhI ibgwnw sgl sMig hm kau bin AweI ] 

19 Latif, K.B. Syad Muhammad, History of the Panjab from the Remotest Antiquity to the Present Time, dated Jhang – 1889; Calcutta – 1891, p 254

20 Guru Granth Sahib, p 74
huix hukmu hoAw imhrvwx dw ] pY koie n iksY r\wxdw ]
sB suKwlI vuTIAw iehu hoAw hlymI rwju jIau ]

21 According to a contemporary account written within twenty-two years of the momentous event, “Guru Tegh Bahadar having been kept a prisoner… was executed under the orders of the Emperor Alamgir in 1086 al-Hijri, 11 November 1675 (See Bhandari, Munshi Sujan Rai, Khulasa-tut-Tawarikh, completed in 1697, p. 70).

22 Latif, History of the Panjab, op. cit., p. 260; Edwards, S.M. & Garrette, H.L.O., The Maghal Rule in India, London-1930, Delhi-1956, p. 114.

23 Akhbarat, 13th year, sheet 17- as rendered into English and published by Sarkar, Dr. Sir J N in his History of Aurangzeb, Vol. III, Calcutta - 1928, p. 283; see also Khushwaqt Rai, Munshi, Tawarikh-i-Sikhan (dated 1811), mss preserved in the Panjab Archives at Paliala, ff. 24-26; Edwardes & Garrette, the Mughal Rule in India, op. cit., p114.

24. That is, of the Hindus.

25. That is, their religious sacraments.

26 That is, made such a unique and supreme sacrifice.

27 In the freedom of conscience and worship for everybody.

28. That is, his contemporary Mughal Emperor, M. Muhammad Alamgir Aurangzeb.

29 Gobind Singh, Sri Guru Dasam Granth Sahib, ‘Bachinar Natak, Anandpur- 1698, ch. 4, st. 13-15…
fsbe izR{ okyk gqG sk ek, ehB' pv/ eb{ wfj ;kek .
;kXB j/fs, fJsh fifB eoh, ;h; dh:k, go ;h B T[uoh .
Xow j/s ;kek fifB ehnk, ;h; dhnk go[ f;oo[ B dhnk...
mheo c'fo, fdbh; f;fo, gqGg[o eh:k g:kB .
s/r pjkdo ;h feqnk, eoh B feBj{z nkfB .

30 A very popular adage usually sung in a chorus by the Sikhs while preparing or heading for a morcha or a movement. ikB ikfJ sK ikJ/, w/ok f;Zyh f;de Bk ikJ/ .

31 Geden, Dr. A. S., in Vol. IX of Hastings, J. (ed.), The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Edinburg - 1920, p. 764.


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