Times of Guru Arjan
The age of Guru Arjun can be called a bridge between the medieval and modern ages. It was a time when Martin Luther (1483-1546 AD) revolted against the authority of Pope and subsequently became leader of the Protestant Movement in Europe.1 In India, the Mughal Emperor Akbar made a novel experiment of synthesizing all religions in 1581 AD2, after having discussions with various religions in the Abadat Khana at Fathepur Sikri. But his Dine-e-Illahi could not become popular and declined after his death. Guru Arjun's approach to religion was, however, quite different. The purpose of paper is to discuss the prevalent religious antagonism in those days and Guru Arjun's response.
One of the contemporaries of Guru Arjun, Bhai Gurdas had rightly stated that "The world was in flames", burning with egoism, fanaticism and religious antagonism.3 During medieval times, the Christians considered non-Christians as pagans. Portuguese destroyed one of the biggest Hindu temples in Ceylon at Trincomalee in 1622 AD because of religious antagonism. Sir Williams Jones, the founder of Asiatic Society wrote, "It would have remained for the present day a venerable relic, had not the misguided religious zeal of the Portuguese razed it to the ground."4 Safvi Shah Mohammed Ismail, a Shia ruler of Baghdad, was burning the mosques of Sunnis in early sixteenth century.5 In England, Queen Mary of Scotland (1552-58) burned alive some missionaries calling them heretics.6
In India, situation was not better. Arnold Toynbee has rightly stated, "The Indian and Judaic religions are notoriously different in spirit, and where they have met some time they behaved like oil and vinegar. Their principal meeting ground had been India where Islam was imposed on Hindus violently. On the whole, story of the relations between these two great religions on the Indian ground has been an unhappy tale of mutual misunderstanding and hostilities."7
John Marshall observes, "Seldom in the history of mankind has the spectacle been witnessed of two civilizations, so vast and so strongly developed, yet so radically dissimilar as the Muhammedan and the Hindu, meeting and mingling together. The very contrasts which existed between them, the wide divergence in their culture and their religion make the history of their impact peculiarly instructive."8 Monotheism of Islam was basically inconsistent with the worship of numberless deities which characterized current Hinduism.9 The Muslim rulers were destroying the Hindu ancient temples. At Mathura, Sikandar Lodhi (1488-1504 AD) who was contemporary of Guru Nanak, had destroyed the Keshwa temple and also other temples in various places.10 In his days, Baudhan Pandit was persecuted and killed by Qazi's Fatwa and his only fault was that he had said that the religions of both the Moslems and Hindus, if acted on with sincerity, were equally acceptable to God."11
Bhai Gurdas (1551-1637AD), who was nephew of Guru Amardas, the third Sikh Guru and a contemporary of Guru Arjun, and who was a scribe of the Adi Guru Granth, has described the mutual bickering of various Muslim sects:
"After the advent of Prophet Mohammed and his four devotees (viz; Abu Bakar, Umar, Usman, and Ali) there were several denominations prevalent among the Muslims. Many types of enmity and opposition erupted. They were all bound by formalities and rituals like fasts, Id, Namaz, etc….had different formations. They destroyed Hindu temples and replaced them by mosques. They killed the poor and sin became ubiquitous."12
The condition of Hindus was no better. Firstly, they were divided in four castes and secondly, they had numerous denominations opposed to each other. Bhai Gurdas has vividly described their conditions in the following way:
"In view of the prevailing in the world, four Varans and four Ashrams were established. Then ten orders of ascetics and twelve orders of Yogis came into being. Further, Jangams, the wanderers, samans and digambers, naked Jain ascetics also started their disputations. Many categories of Brahmins came into being who propounded Shastras, Vedas and Puranas contradicting one another. The mutual contradictions among the six Indian philosophies further added many hypocrisies. Alchemy, tantra, mantra and miracles became every thing for the people. Getting divided into myriad sects(and castes) produced a horrible look."13
The real spirit of religion was buried in the mass of formalities and rituals among both Hindus and Muslims. Both had gone astray as has been concluded by Bhai Gurdas. "There are four castes of Hindus and four sects of Muslims. The members of both the religions are selfish, jealous, proud, bigoted and violent. Hindus made pilgrimage to Hardwar and Benaras and Muslims to Mecca and Kaba. Circumcision is dear to Muslims and Sandal mark (tilak) to Hindus. The Hindus invoke Ram, Muslims Rahim but in reality there is only one God. They have forgotten Hindu sacred book Vedas and Muslims sacred books. Worldly greed and devils have led them stray. Truth is hidden from both. Brahmins and Maulvis have bitter controversies with each other over trifles."14
During Sultanate period of Indian history, the Ulema dominated the state and acted as the guides of rulers and statesman.15 Akbar, the Mughal Emperor (1556-1605 AD) saw the need of reconciling the Hindus to Muslim rule, and resolved to shake off the yoke of the canonical order and to evolve a policy which would ultimately lead to the fusion of the two races. But his dream could not be fulfilled as he saw different denominations among the Muslims who were at loggerheads with one another. The Sunnis, Shias, Mehdis and Sufis held different doctrines which often quarreled amongst themselves.16 He hoped to end their quarrels, and cherished the dream of arriving at a synthesis of the warring creeds and to unite into an organic whole the heterogeneous elements which constituted his vast empire. The bigotry of the Ulema disgusted and alienated him form Islam. Akbar himself had leaning towards Sufis.17 The Sufis believed that the diverse creeds were only manifestations of the desire to know the truth, and laid stress upon the spirit underlying all religions rather than upon the forms in which they were clothed. The Sufi doctrine marked a rebellion against the letter of the law and its exponent urged free thought as the primary condition of spiritual advancement. Sufis taught that the individual souls were only manifestations of the supreme souls in which they were finally immersed. In order to resolve the mutual religious antagonism, Akbar ordered a new building to be constructed at Fatehpur Sikri in 1575 called the Ibadatkhana, where the professors of different faiths were to assemble and to hold religious discussions. Here came professors of different creeds, Brahmins, Jains, Parsis, Christians and Muslims from all parts of the country.18
The theological debate raged loud and fierce, and protagonists of rival sects tried to tear one another in argument. They found it difficult to control their passions which often burst out in highly undignified scenes. The leaders of the orthodox party were Shaikh Makhdum-Mulk and Shaikh Abdulnabi whereas the free thinkers were represented by such men as Mubarak, Abdul Faizi, Abdul Faxl. The orthodox quarreled among themselves and the most notable quarrel was between the two Sheikhs. They engaged themselves in a violent controversy in which they used abusive language towards each other to the delight of their opponents. But more violent and bitter were the attacks made on the heterodoxy, their ways and practices. The Shias looked on with secret satisfaction while the blows were delivered upon their Sunni opponents and helped in circulation of lampoons and satires. The Mullas expressed their disapproval of the manner in which the most solemn subjects were discussed, and not withstanding the fact that the emperor was present throughout the discussions, they often indulged in abusive and filthy language. Badaoni had described the scene in his own way:
"The learned men used to draw the sword of the tongue on the battlefield of mutual contradiction and opposition and the antagonism of the sects reached such a pitch that they would call one another fools and heretics. The controversies used to pass beyond the differences of Sunni and Shia, of Hanafi and Shafi of lawyer and divide, and they would attack the very basis of belief.19
The Emperor granted interviews to learned Brhamins, the chief of who were Purshotam and Debi who were invited to explain the principles of their religion. The Brahman philosopher Debi instructed His Majesty in the secrets and legends of Hinduism, in the manner of worshipping idols, the fire, the sun and stars and of reverencing the chief gods of the Hindu-Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesha, Krishna, Rama and the goddess Mahamai. Similarly, Jain monks, Parsi theologians and Christian Fathers from Goa were involved in explaining the tenets of their religions. Ultimately, Akbar inaugurated Din Illahi, which synthesized various religions.20 Somehow or the other Din-e-Illahi could not be popular and declined after his death. There are several causes for this decline as well.
Guru Arjun's (1581-1606 AD) response to the prevalent religious antagonism was very comprehensive and broad based. It can be called scientific as it is valid even in the modern times. He emphasized that both religions-Hinduism and Islam can elevate the human soul. He recognized their validity as is clear from his following hymn:
One man invoked Ram, another Khuda
One man worshippeth Gossain, another Allah
Some speak cause of causes, other of the benevolent
Some talk of extender of mercy, other of the merciful
Some perform Hindu worship,
Other bow their heads in the Mohammedan fashion
Some read Vedas, others Muslim books
Some wear white others blue
Some are called Muhammedans others Hindus
Someseek bihisht other Swarga.
Saith Nanak: whoever divine will realizes
The Lord's mystery has understood.21
The last line in the hymn gives the clue to the religious ideology as explained by Guru Arjun. The guru ushered in a new era in the history of religion when he declared that true religion consisted of two things only- love of God and purity of conduct. The Guru dispensed with all formalities in favour of these two things. This has never been contradicted. Some religions may be differing from the Guru's in their method of worship, but did not differ in their aim. Guru Arjun writes:
Of all religions the best is the practice
Of Name of God with purity of conduct
Of all rites the best in the purge one's heart
Of filth and evil tendencies by association
With those who have disciplined themselves.
Of all devotional practices, the best is the
Constant application of the heart to the Name
Of all sacred texts, the most sacred is that by
Which one hears the praise of Beloved, utters it to others.
Of all holy places, the holiest is where one
Feels the stir of the Name in one's heart.22
Guru Arjun not only enunciated this simplest definition of religion but practically demonstrated it while compiling Adi Guru Granth, the Sikh scripture. Guru Arjun included compositions of certain medieval Bhagti saints. Thus, by including verses of saints and Bhaktas belonging to different religious denomination in the Adi Granth, Guru Arjan not only accepted the relevance of all other faiths and religious streams but also made it explicit that all religions despite their external rituals and practices derived their substance from the same Divine Reality. "O burnt be that mouth, which say that the Lord enters into existence. He is not born, nor dies. He comes and goes not.23
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2015, All