Martyrdom : Guru Arjan Dev Ji

The Sikh history is replete with examples of martyrdom, that of Guru Arjan Dev being the first one. The tradition of martyrdom in India begins with Sikhism as there has been no known instance of martyrdom prior to that. Thus, Guru Arjan Dev becomes the first martyr not only in Sikh tradition but also in the history of India as a whole. Interestingly, none of the Indian languages has a word to connote the meaning of the word martyr or martyrdom.

In fact, Sikhism not only marks the beginning of the concept and tradition of martyrdom but it will also be no exaggeration to say that the Sikh community in the short span of its history has undergone as much of suffering and made as many of sacrifices and courted martyrdoms as no other faith-community in the world has. The community remembers, in their daily ardas or supplicatory prayer, these sufferings, sacrifices and martyrdoms so as to seek inspiration and strength from them for realizing the mission of the Gurus. Following the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, many more instances of martyrdom in the Sikh tradition took place primarily because the Sikh stand for freedom of faith and human dignity came in clash with the policy of religious intolerance and fanaticism followed by the government of the day.

The term martyr or martyrdom has roots in the Greek word martur, also written as rnartus and marturos, which stands for witness. There was, it seems, no equivalent of the word martyr or martyrdom in any of the Indian languages until Sikh tradition adopted the word shahadat, borrowing it from Arabic language and Islamic tradition. The word shahadat in Arabic also means testimony or affirmation. Thus, the term martyrdom or shahadat implies the high tragedy of supreme sacrifice one makes for one’s faith and thus bears witness to its truth and to one’s own passionate adherence to it. Implicitly, a martyr or shahid is one who by courting martyrdom bears witness to the truth of his faith and to his own unswerving commitment and allegiance to it. Implicit in martyrdom is one’s willingness to withstand aggression or persecution, and meet death or short of that, suffer privation for upholding that commitment and/or any other righteous and nobles cause. A Sikh theologian defines martyrdom as “a phenomenon the root cause of which is the challenge to the Establishmentreligious or secular-either from without or within. The challenger may be a revealer (Prophet) of a new, unorthodox truth, or a discoverer of a new scientific idea…”.

Martyrdom, however, is not a concept peculiar to any one religious tradition, though martyrdom in Sikhism has certain characteristics different from the one in other traditions. It is not like the crucifixion of Jesus Christ who is also said to have preached a divine message based on an ethic of love, peace and mercy so that the Kingdom of God is established on this earth. However, his crucifixion during the time of Pontius Pilate has been taken as an act of atonement for the sins of human beings so that they become purified and eligible to enter the Kingdom. And, it was for those who followed the way of Jesus. There are also instances of religious and spiritual persons laying down their lives to help or protect their followers or co-religionists. Sectarian considerations seemed to dominate all such acts of sacrifice. However, in the Sikh case, as we shall see in the following pages, the spiritual preceptors and others underwent suffering and privation and even faced death so as to provide an example to mankind in general to have the moral strength to stand up for their conviction, for the truth of their conviction: any injustice and oppression must be resisted and one must have the freedom of conscience.

In the Indian context, during and following the Aryan invasions, both the invader and the invaded might have fought against each other, believing strongly in the truth of their struggle/fight and showing their deep commitment to the cause of that truth.

However, there is available no specific Indian word in pre- and post-Aryan era to refer to one who fought and died for such a cause, for certain values. The pre-Vedic and non-Vedic indigenous faiths, Jainism and Buddhism, also suffered persecution and death at certain places at the hands of Aryan Hindus: the latter believed in the truth of the revelatory Vedas and the natives, including the sramanic traditions of Jainism and Buddhism, might have been committed to whatever their faith. Many followers of the indigenous religions might have suffered privation and even death for their commitment to a faith they believed in, but there was, as it appears today, no term and no word to denote this. On the other hand, there has been in India a tradition of self-inflicted suffering which generally aims at purifying one’s own inner self but sometimes also used for awakening the conscience of the oppressor tyrant. There have been numerous instances of self-mortification or self-destruction by many holy men for the purpose of checking the tyrant from committing oppression and evil. In fact, the concept of satyagrah used as a political weapon by Mahatma Gandhi during the twentieth century has also its roots in this background. However, this kind of sacrifice cannot be called martyrdom or shahadat in the true sense of the term: it contains some elements of martyrdom, but lacks the major element of suffering persecution and getting killed at the hands of the tyrant.

The ancient Indian history is also replete with examples of many a struggle taking place between Good and Evil. However, martyrdom is essentially free from the contrasting and oppositional conflict between Good and Evil, gods and demons, believers and non-believers. The presence of the human element, suffering and supreme sacrifice by the human were, of course, the central motif in the struggle. But we also find that in each such struggle it is, on the one hand, an oppositional conflict between the Good (godly) and the EvH (demonic) and the intervention by Divine must invariably take place on behalf of the Good, thus minimizing the significance of human suffering and sacrifice and giving credit for everything to the Divine. A potential martyr should not only be fearless of death and persecution but also free from all feelings of prejudice and ill-will against anybody, especially the persecutor.

In all cases of theomacy in Indian mythology, we find feelings of enmity and prejudice on both sides. Second, if people suffer at hands of fanatic Kans or if Prahlad fails to have freedom of faith, the victims do suffer and struggle, but they overcome Evil only when intervention of Divine on their side takes place. The tradition of self-inflicted suffering and torture, presence of the feelings of ill-will and prejudice and the divine intervention in all the struggles fought for the sake of truth and values are the most important reasons which perhaps explain for the absence of any Indian equivalent for shahid or shahadat. Maybe that was also one of the reasons which resulted in the political subjugation of the nation when it came face to face with some Semitic communities.

At the time the Sikh religion originated, there were two prominent religions-Hindusim and Islam-prevalent in India. No doubt, in the pre-Aryan India existed an organized religious life based on its own philosophy of life as shows the Rig Vedic reference to the sramanas. The Aryans soon dominated the prevalent Indus Valley civilization but the acculturation between the two ethnic groups gradually gave birth to a world-view dominated by the Vedic tradition: the Indus valley civilization got pushed into the background. The new world-view favoured lifenegation and world-negation, and religion became devoid of any social context. The divorce from social reality reduced religion to a set of arid beliefs and lifeless rituals. The voice of truth got lost in the din of clashes of the mutually contradictory philosophical doctrines expounded by numerous sects and sub-sects that had emerged. The practice of renunciation resulted in the moral degeneration at the individual and social levels. Each felt concerned for one’s own salvation and no one cared for the moral and ethical well-being of the society as a whole. The social structure was horizontally divided into four different caste groups which denied a sizeable section of society the chance to realize their spiritual potential. Sexism existed as a system of marginalization of woman.

This sexist discrimination against her became all the worse when she happened to belong to the so-called lower caste or lesser privileged class in society. She completely lost her independent entity, became an object for the enjoyment of male counterpart and that is why she committed sati or self-immolation at the pyre of her husband.

The doctrine of life-negation and world-negation brought in its wake moral and ethical bankruptcy in socio-religious and subjugation in political life. The Muslims who came to India as traders in the south soon turned invaders in the north-west and then conquerors and rulers of India. When Babar invaded India in 1526 and caused much death and destruction, unleashing inexpressible atrocities and oppression on the natives, India was ruled by a ruling class which was least concerned for the welfare of common man. Their rule was marked by injustice and

exploitation, oppression and intolerance. Interestingly, it was the on the invitation of the governor of Punjab (Daulat Khan Lodhi) and 4 Alam Khan (an uncle of the Delhi king, Ibrahim Lodhi), that Babar invaded India. Guru Nanak feels rather pained at the bloodshed and suffered caused by this invasion, but he also sees Babar as an unwitting instrument of the divine Will to punish the Lodhis for having failed to protect their subjects, for having violated the laws of God.

During the Guru-period, Akbar has been the sole exception of being a king who followed a policy of religious tolerance. He was a kind of pluralist who did not work against any faith or faith-community.However, this policy of religious toleirance and sulh-i-kul ended with the regime of Akbar. No doubt, some Rajput princes like Jai Singh, who founded the famous city of Jaipur, pursued this policy in their states, but the pendulum, swung towards bigotry and intolerance, coercion and oppression during almost all the following regimes in Delhi. There was as early as the Sultanate period an attempt for the complete imposition of the shari’ at rule, and the royal chroniclers tried to give Islamic garb to any politically expedient action. In later years, destruction of places of worship of and imposition of the protection tax (jizid) on non-Muslims and the forcible conversion into Islam were common features of the Mughal rule even though all this distorted the social structure as envisioned by their prophet. Such oppressive policies resulted in the persecution of non-Muslims, creating among the two communities a sense of distrust and disharmony, discrimination and hatred. This also resulted in reducing the native Hindus into a humiliated and submissive nation. Even though the Sufis did make attempts, feeble though, at creating an atmosphere of inter-religious tolerance and goodwill, the entry of Islam into India has on the whole been marked by an ugly recurrence of religious intolerance and persecution.

Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, reflected deeply on the existing socio-religious and political situation in the country and also happened to be an eye-witness to Babar’s invasion and the suffering caused in its wake. He protests in his hymns, collectively knows as “Babar Vani” , against this uncalled for death and destruction. But the truth Guru Nanak had received from God, the truth he had been sharing with mankind in general and the truth he himself lived stood for life-affirmation and worldaffirmation (as against the prevalent philosophy of life-negation and world-negation). He held the entire created phenomena, including man and the world he lived in, as real, though relatively real: God not only created everything but also permeated through the entire creation. This lent spirituality to the mundane reality, and relative reality to what was then considered mere maya or unreal. From the idea of divine immanence in each being was derived the doctrine of spiritual unity and ethnic equality of humankind. Since God manifested Himself qua spirit in each being, the Gurus advised man to love all, be just to all and perform deeds of philanthropy for the welfare of masses: there was no place for tyranny and oppression, injustice and violence by man against man.

Guru Nanak believed in the path of truth and love and wanted others also to follow this faith. However, when he saw the forces obstructing the path of truth and love, he raised his voice of strong protest. This has been perhaps the first ever protest of this kind in the religious history of mankind made by a spiritual preceptor.

He was so strongly given to the truthful behaviour in human social relations that he proclaims Truth to be the highest, but truthful living is called still higher. In another of his hymns, the Guru wants those desirous of treading the path of love to be ever ready to sacrifice their head. Guru Nanak thus first propounded his message of love and equality and then seems to prepare his followers to become witnesses to that truth, to be ready to suffer persecution and even death for the sake of truth. Thus, we can also say the seeds of martyrdom in Sikh tradition are latent in the teachings of Guru Nanak himself.

Thus, from its very infancy Sikhism has stood for truth, for righteousness and exhorted its followers to fight against those who subvert the truth. The Sikh scripture, on the whole, articulates the general framework of structure within which the ideal of truth is to be realized. It is also normative in that it serves as the basis of the code of conduct and ethics for the followers. These latter together constitute the Sikh way of life, and one such constituent prescribed is that this world being the dwelling-place of God be transformed into Sach Khand, where the values of equality, love, justice and dignity should prevail, the devotees must neither put others to fear nor own to anybody’s fear, and they must not shrink from making the supreme sacrifice in a holy cause of defending these values. The death of heroic men is holy, should they lay down their lives for a righteous cause, says Guru Nanak.

At another place in the scripture, Kabir reiterates the same idea in a little different way as he says:

gagan damama bajio pario nisane ghao;

khet jo mandio surama ab jujhan ko dau;

sura so pahichaniai jo lare din ke het.;

purja purja kati marai kabahu no chhade khetu.

The hero., entering the field,

Fights on without quailing.

Know that man to be a true hero

Who fights in defence of the defenceless;

Hacked limb by limb, he still flees not the field.

-GGS, Kabir 1005

Guru Arjan also proclaims that it has been the commandment of the Lord that there should be no dominance of one over the other and all should live in peace, prosperity and justice: he gives this socio-political situation the name of halemi raj or a polity deominated by righteousness. Guru Gobind Singh, who authored three compositions on the Chandi theme, prays to Almighty in one of the concluding verses of his Chandi Charitra Ukti Bilas seeking the divine boon to ever do noble deeds and be able to lay down his life for the sake of righteousness: he also exhorts his followers to be ever ready to strive for truth and even die for the sake of truth:

deh siva baru mohi ihai subh krman to kabahun no taron, na daro ari so jab jai laron nischai kari apuni jit karon ar sikhaho apane hi mana ko ih lalach hau gun tau ucharo, fab av hi audh nidan banai ati hi ran max tab jujh maron.

Lord, grant me this boon:

Never may I turn back from rightousness;

May I never turn back in fear when facing the foe;

May I ever instruct my mind to chant Thy praises;

And when the end arrives,

May I fall fighting on the field of battle.

To stand up to a righteous cause, to stand up in defence of the hapless and defenceless, to be willing to make even the supreme sacrifice for the sake of a cause held dear by a fellow citizen -all this requires a lot of courage and fearlessness. The Sikh Gurus have repeatedly exhorted man to be fearless and give up cowardice.

Thus, in Sikhism, one is required to give up all cowardice, be brave and courageous enough to stand up against all kinds of injustice, oppression and high-handedness. One must be willing to suffer privation and even meet death fighting against these and such other evils, with no personal motive or interest attached to that fight. In fact, true martyrdom, in Sikhism, lies in the willingness to suffer without flinching. Sikhism prefers non-violent resistance to begin with, but if all peaceful means fail to make the oppressor see reason, the resort to sword is also justified. Guru Nanak and his successors prepared their disciples for this with a view to replacing the existing social setup with a new world order where values of equality and love, justice and tolerance, compassion and self-respect prevail. This was a revolutionary ideology for a nation given to passive submission and humiliation, a people who always waited for divine intervention to help them out as and when the situation became absolutely unbearable.

History provided in Sikh tradition the first such opportunity, an opportunity for one to stand witness to, to suffer persecution and death for a righteous cause when Jahangir ascended the throne of Delhi. He succeeded Akbar (1542-1605) who was known for his liberal religious policy and the Sikh chronicles also refer to his amicable relations with the Sikh Gurus. However, Jahangir was not as liberal and tolerant, rather he was under the influence of the fanatic and exclusivistic clergy, especially the people like Shaikh Ahmad of Sirhind of the Naqashbandi order. He soon got alarmed by the growing influence of Guru Arjan as he wrote in his Tuzk: So many of the simple-minded Hindus, nay, many foolish Muslims too had been fascinated by the Guru’s ways and teachings. For many years the thought had been presenting itself to my mind that either I should put an end to this false traffic or that he be brought into the fold of Islam.

No doubt, the rising popularity of a non-Muslim holy man was too much for Jahangir and the fanatic clergy which advised him on various matters, the Guru’s meeting with Khusarau added fuel to the fire. The Emperor says that when “Khusrau stopped at his [Guru Arjan’s] residence, the latter came out and had an interview with him. Giving him some elementary spiritual precepts picked up here and there, he made a mark with saffron on his forehead which is called qashqa in the idiom of the Hindus and which they consider lucky.” The Emperor now came with the decree that the Guru be arrested and brought to him. He also awarded the Guru’s houses and dwellings and those of his children to Murtaza Khan, and also decreed that his possessions and goods be confiscated and he be executed according to yasa siyasat, literally punishment by law or capital punishment given through means which prevented spilling of blood. Implicity, it involved punishment of extreme torture without shedding blood, and this was the punishment inflicted on Guru Arjan Dev.

The words of Jahangir quoted above mean that Jahangir

watched the Sikh movement with disapproval for many years: he did not like some of his co-religionists giving up their faith in favour of Sikhism, the rising popularity of the Sikh movement, Guru Arjan being addressed as Sacha Patshah (the True Lord) and the Guru meeting the rebellous prince Khusrau and ‘blessing’

him which, according to the Emperor, meant taking the Prince’s side in the Mughal dynastic dispute against Jahangir. He apprehended danger to his throne from the Sikh movement which many people considered as becoming ‘state within the state’.

However, this is not the whole truth, and there were several other reasons which prompted Jahangir to take this extreme step against the Guru.

Sikhism, the youngest of the major religions of the world today, tends to accept the plurality of faiths, acknowledges the validity of all of them, and rejects the claim of monopoly over truth by any particular religion whichever. It states quite unequivocally that revelation cannot be religion-specific, regionspecific or person-specific. Ifstands for the freedom of man to practice the faith of his choice. This ideology of the Sikh Gurus stood in opposition to that of religious intolerance and persecution followed by Jahangir and later on by his successors, especially Aurangzib who tried to rule by the laws of shari ‘at. The clash of contradictory ideologies and the general feeling that a large number of people were being mentally prepared to refuse to accept the unjust and oppressive, intolerant and exploitative policies of the contemporary government had made the Emperor rather


Jahangir’s feelings of intolerance of other faiths and faithcommunities were incited a great deal by the fanatic clerics especially people like Shaikh Ahamad of Sirhind. He was the man strongly opposed to the liberal religious policy of Akbar, Jahangir’s predecessor. He was also responsible for the death of Abu Fazl, a courtier of Akbar who wrote Akbar-nama and was the main force for shaping the religious policy of Akbar. Shaikh Ahmad was strongly opposed to all non-Muslim faiths and their holy men, and was thus against Guru Arjan who had by that time become a rallying point for a strong movement in favour of religious tolerance and pluralism. He prompted Muslims especially the followers of his Naqashbandi Sufi order to pursue an exclusivist policy by providing a theological basis so as to make the kafirs (non-Muslims) submit to Islam. He aimed at the expansion of Islam with the help of state authorities. He is said to have incited Jahangir against the Guru when he was at Sirhind in pursuit of Khusrau, who had rebeled against the Emperor and whom the Guru is alleged to have provided some sort of help. Shaikh Ahmad obviously presented to the Emperor exaggerated reports of the activities of the Guru and of the kind of help he rendered unto the Prince.

When Guru Arjan was martyred, Shaikh Ahmad did not hide his glee and gave expression to his happiness at the elimination of the Guru of the ‘kafirs ‘.

Thus, according to this view, Guru Arjan Dev was given capital punishment according to the law of yasa siyasat under the orders of Emperor Jahangir. He was, no doubt, incited by various persons and factors, but ultimately the responsibility lies on him for it was he who issued the decree to arrest and execute the Guru. However, there is another opinion as well, though many of the modern-day scholars seem to reject it. According to this view, supported strongly by a letter, written only about four months after the incident, by a Jesuit and which is still preserved. As per this letter, Chandu Shah, who was a Diwan in the Mughal administration and who had a personal grudge against the Guru, also gets involved in the matter and it is he who takes upon himself the responsibility of executing the Guru. The information provided in the letter is rejected on the ground that Father Jerome Xavier, the author of this letter, perhaps fell a prey to the rumours spread by the state to absolve itself of the responsibility by subverting the public perception of the event.

Sikhism originated, among other things, with the aim of transforming the humiliated and etherised Indian community into a self-respecting nation. It believed in the doctrine of frightening none and at the same time submitting to the fear of none. Rather it proclaimed love for mankind the only way to love the Lord.

Guru Arjan, in one of his hymns, says that one must imbibe such a feeling of love in one’s heart that he ever feels closeness to the Lord (GGS, V, 807). He further states that a person who does not love the Lord is a dead log even though he may be very handsome, come of high family, be very intelligent and enlightened, and affluent (GGS, V, 253). The Guru obviously did not like the overbearing and arrogant attitude of Chandu: he said or did nothing against him, but only refrained from having any family alliance with him. However, Chandu remained full of malice towards the Guru ever after the latter declined the offer of matrimonial alliance of Chandu’s daughter for the Guru’s son. He was instigated by Prithi Chand as well, but the malice in his own heart was the main reason which made him first prefer complaints against the Guru and then ultimately get his lawful custody, as says the letter of the Jesuit, to torture him to death. Later on when the Emperor mended relations with Guru Hargobind, he gave over Chandu in the Guru’s custody : Chandu met a humiliating death at the hands of the Sikhs. This fact of history also testifies to Chandu’s nefarious role in the martydom of the Guru.

The role of Prithi Chand and several other imperial officials like Sulahi Khan and his nephew Sulabi Khan also cannot be overlooked, though the> were not directly responsible for the Guru’s arrest and execution. Different chronicles give details of how Prithi Chand tried to harm the Guru on various occasions, both directly and indirectly. His refusal to accept the spiritual succession to Guru Arjan, his setting up of a separate gaddi, his complaints to various government authorities against the Guru on different occasions, his and his wife’s conspiracies to kill child Hargobind, his manipulation with Sulahi Khan and Sulabi Khan, etc. are all part of history now. He had first invited faujdar Sulhi Khan with the intention of harming the Guru, but he died before he could take any action against the Guru. He then invited Sulabi Khan but God had willed otherwise and he also got killed by one of his own men before reaching the Guru. Similarly, Chandu Shah also played his role, and we have discussed this in the chapter on the Guru’s life.

Clearly, the entire life of the Guru was full of many challenges, but he bore witness to the truth of his faith and to his own unswerving commitment and allegiance to it. Guru Arjan stood for the religious freedom of man and refused to renounce his faith when so desired by the ruler of the day. He refused to pay the fine unreasonably imposed on him, even though the devotee Sikhs of Lahore are said to have offered to collect the required amount through voluntary donations. He never showed, in word or deed, any grudge or ill-will against anyone conspiring against him. He willingly offered himself to suffer any privation and even meet death for upholding his principles. As a contemporary Jesuite missionary records, in a private letter referred to in the preceding pages, this ‘good Pope’ “died, overwhelmed by the sufferings, torments, dishonours” heaped on him. Thus, Guru Arjan became the first martyr of the Sikh faith. Let this be reiterated here that the main cause of the martyrdom of the Guru was obviously the intolerant religious policy of Emperor Jahangir, but the role of Chandu and others was equally reprehensible and cannot be overlooked.

Bhai Gurdas, who was not only related by blood to the Guru but had also worked with Guru Arjan as his amanuensis when he compiled the Sikh scripture, has composed vars and kabitts which interpret Sikh dectrines as well as detail several contemporary events and persons. In one of his vars he has gone to the extent of listing names of important Sikhs of the first six of the Sikh Gurus, but unfortunately, he gives no details of circumstances leading to the martyrdom of the Guru. Only one stanza (No. 23) of one of his vars (XXIV) deals with the incident which has invariably been acknowledged as a watershed in the development of Sikh history and tradition. This stanza also concentrates describing the last moments of the Guru’s life as conforming to those of a hero referred to in the Sikh scripture. He does not talk about either the circumstances leading to the event or to the exact nature of tortures and consequent death. The silence of Bhai Gurdas in this respect could only be explained by saying that perhaps by referring to the spirited message of the Guru he wanted to take the Sikhs out of their traumatized state.

Anyway, it was the hot month of May when the Guru was

arrested and imprisoned in the Lahore Fort. He was, some sources say, chained to a post in an open place exposed to the sun from morn till evening. He was made to sit, stand and He on hot sand and boiling water was thrown on his naked body. Tradition believes that he was also made to sit on a red hot iron plate and hot sand was poured over his body. This caused blisters all over his body.

The Guru bore all these tortures and humiliations as the will of God and even declined the offer of Mian Mir to intercede on his behalf. Whatever He ordains appears sweet, and I supplicate for the gift of Name, Guru Arjan is said to have uttered at that moment.

He had proclaimed in his hymns to accept whatever He wills and one must be sacrifice unto His will- jo tudhu bhavai so parvanu/ tere bhane no karbanu (GGS, V, 676). This also testifies to the strong Sikh opposition to miracles, especially a spiritual preceptor’s performance of a miracle to obstruct or violate the divine will.

Obviously, at this moment of time the Guru suffered from heat apoplexy. He desired to bathe in the Ravi, a request which was acceded to. It is also said that the tormentors themselves took the Guru to the river. Either way, the Guru was escorted to the river and the cold and soothing water of the river put an end to the tortures and sufferings being inflicted on the Guru.

V The martyrdom left a deep impact not only on the history of the Sikh faith but also on the history of India. He had provided during his lifetime scriptural, doctrinal and organizational base for a revolutionary movement. He and his preceding Gurus had preached truth and exhorted their followers to stand witness to the truth. They had made efforts to undo the base of the prevalent unjust and intolerant, oppressive and exploitative social structure and instead build a new social setup wherein prevailed the values of equality and love, justice and dignity, tolerance and harmony.

His martyrdom was a living example to be followed by those who loved truth, who were committed to the values of truth and righteousness. His son and successor, Guru Hargobind, began the doctrine of miri-piri by donning two swords at the time of his succession. So far the Sikh movement had been peaceful largely because the ruling class was tolerant of other faiths and faithcommunities. Now Guru Hargobind had to take up sword against the exclusivistic and oppressive policies of the government of the day.

The impact of Guru Arjan’s martyrdom can also be seen in the events which led to the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621-1675)., the ninth Guru of the Sikh faith. He assumed the spiritual leadership of the Sikh faith in 1664 when India was ruled by Emperor Aurangzib. A pious man in his personal life, Aurangzib was an orthodox Muslim who had waded through a river of blood to reach the throne: he had to imprison his father and kill his brothers to get the crown. He followed a fanatical religious policy to appease and please the orthodox Muslim clergy. He decreed “to destroy with a willing hand the schools and temples of the Infidels and put an entire stop to their religious practices and teachings”

(1669) and imposed jizya, a tax non-Muslim population had to pay for permission to live in an Islamic State (1679). There were many more such edicts which aimed at humiliating and harrassing the non-Muslims. Though Aurangzib had nothing personal against Guru Tegh Bahadur, yet both of them stood clearly for ideals in stark opposition to each other. Guru Tegh Bahadur could not bear the persecution of others and he seems to have made up his mind to resist the Emperor’s policy of religious persecution and even to lay down his life to redeem the freedom of belief.

The decisive moment came in 1675 when some Kashmiri

pandits waited upon the Guru at Anandpur. They had come to him to complain against Iftikhar Khan, Aurangzeb’s satrap in Kahsmir, who was making en masse conversions to Islam through use of force. The Guru listened to their woes and resolved to take upon himself the onus of defending their right to religious practice and belief. Resloved to challenge the royal policy of religious exclusivism and intolerance, the Guru of his own set out for Delhi.

Although the Guru was himself leading to Delhi, the authorities arrested him on the way, put him in chains and brought him to Delhi. His refusal to renounce his faith resulted in his public execution in Chandni Chowk on 11 November 1675. However, before beheading him, three of his devoted followers were also tortured to death before his eyes.

The resolution by the Guru to court martyrdom was deliberate and conscious, and he took this decision of his own. The authorities intervened only after he took up the challenge to undo both the evil as evil and the suffering of evil as such: the authorities felt his teachings were strengthening among people the resolve, the determination to suffer hardship and even death rather than give up their faith under coercion. The foundation for this was laid by the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, and now the situation was getting ripe for erecting the superstructure of the Khalsa. It was a peculiar situation of self-prompted and meaningful suffering for the sake of others but to uphold a cherished ideal. The religious history of mankind provides no second example of a spiritual leader laying down his life for the people belonging to a religious tradition other than his own. In the Indian history and folklore, he has always been remembered as the protector of the Hindu faith – a unique example of its kind in the history of mankind. However, the roots of this unique occurence are found in the martyrdom of Guru Arjan.

Interestingly, there are several Sikh scriptural hymns criticizing the Hindu religious symbols of janeu and tilak which the Brahmanical class had begun to consider as an end in themselves, thus giving precedence to form over the spirit of religion. The Gurus criticized those who wore such outword symbols but imbibed not the virtues these symbols stood for. However, since a faith-community wanted to wear these as symbols of their faith, the Guru felt that it was their right to do so since he stood for freedom of belief and practice for everyone. On the other hand, Guru Tegh Bahadur, and for that matter any other of the Sikh Gurus, had nothing against Islam as such, and the Sikh scripture unequivocally states that the scriptures of neither the Indian nor Semitic religions can be called false, rather false are those who do not reflect on them. The Sikh advice to a Muslim has throughout been to become a good, true Muslim and for a Hindu to become a good, true Hindu. Had the contemporary political situation in India been the other way round, Guru Tegh Bahadur would surely have made the same sacrifice for the sake of religious freedom of the Musilms.

The Guru throughout remained in perfect poise and committed to his resolve, and his spiritual state reflecting full faith in God’s will can well be imagined from a close reading of the slokas he is believed to have composed during the days of his captivity in Delhi. The followers who had accompanied the Guru to Delhi retained their unflinching faith in the Guru and his ideals till they were put to cruel death before the Guru’s own eyes. This was like a true martyr who must meet his end in perfect poise, neither waivering nor grudging. Interestingly, even the New Testament (John 12) while referring to Jesus’ mental state on the eve of his crucification says that his heart felt “troubled” and Jesus himself called that period “an hour of suffering.”

Thus, Guru Tegh Bahadur and his disciples who courted death along with him became the next martyrs of the Sikh faith. No doubt, the sacrifice made by Guru Tegh Bahadur is without any parallels in human history. Guru Gobind Singh, his son and spiritual successor, in his autobiographical Bachitra Natak (V: 14-16), also testifies to it as he refers to the martyrdom of the Guru as an act unparalleled in history:

Their tilak and janju the Lord saved;

Great deed the Guru performed in the Kaliyuga;

For dharma’s sake he performed this deed;

He gave away his head, but not his resolve;

Breaking the potsherd of body at Delhi king’s head,

Left he for the Realm Celestial;

None else performed the kind of deed

As did Guru Tegh Bahadur.

The tradition of martydom in Sikhism, which was begun by Guru Arjan, will not be complete without making a reference to the sacrifices made by Guru Gobind Singh and especially the martyrdom courted by his young sons. Guru Gobind Singh sacrificed his entire family (including father, mother and sons), his own life and in fact everything that belonged to him. In his fight against the oppressive and unjust policies of the Mughal government and the fanatical attitude of the hill chiefs the Guru sacrificed many of his Sikhs whom he held as dear as his own sons. Still he had no complaints and expressed complete contentment in the will of God. For example, when the Guru was passing through the Machhiwara area after leaving Chamkaur, one day he lay on the bare ground all alone and sang a hymn – mitra piare nu hal murida da kahina – expressing his satisfaction and contentment in the will of God.

All the four sons of Guru Gobind Singh also courted

martyrdom even before they were majors: the elder two, Sahibzada Ajit Singh and Sahibzada Jujhar Singh, were aged 1 8 years and 1 4 years, respectively, when they laid down their lives at Chamkaur fighting against the Mughal forces supported by the hill chiefs who had pursued the Guru violating the vows they had taken to the contrary. The fight obviously was imposed on the Guru who did not fight for a territory but for man’s religious freedom and human dignity. These young boys were being trained from their childhood days to stand against injustice and oppression and even be ready to sacrifice their lives whenever need be. It was also as part of this training that two years earlier, Sahibzada Ajit Singh was deputed, on 7 March 1703, when he was barely 16 years of age, to take out a party of about 100 horsemen against the Pathan chieftain of Bassi, near Hoshiarpur, to rescue a young Brahman bride forcibly taken away by him.

The younger sons of the Guru, Sahibzadas Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh, were bricked alive under order of the Nawab of Sirhind: the young boys, barely nine and seven years of age, were handed over to the Mughal satrap of Sirhind by an old servant of theirs who escorted them this way as they got separated from their father and other members of the family after evacuating Anandpur. These young boys remained unflinched in their faith and without any waivenng of mind preferred death to giving up their faith when forced to make the choice – a lesson they had learnt from their parents, their heritage. Their passionate commitment to their faith even at such a young age and the stark contrast of the cruel death meted out to them with their tender age make their martyrdom all the more significant and unique. No other such example is found in the religious history of mankind.

Their grandmother who had been escorting them gave away her life as the news of the martyrdom of the young ones reached her while still in captivity.

The tradition of martyrdom in Sikhism which began with Guru Arjan has Continued even in the post-Guru period has comprises a long list of martyrs who suffered privation and even met death but remained committed to the truth of their faith, to the values their Gurus stood for. In the period following Banda Singh Bahadur’s martyrdom in 1716, the Sikhs were hounded out and prices were levied on their heads. The invading Afghans and the local Mughal government did their best to liquidate the Sikh community and their religion. Stories of the Sikh persecution have been many but not a single instance of a Sikh waivering in the commitment to his faith. That is why their sanctum sanctorum, the Harimandar at Amritsar, was demolished several times, the Sikhs quickly rebuilding it and assembling there every Diwali and Vaisakhi. The more they were tortured and oppressed, the more powerful and determined they became, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, they had become political masters of the land of Punjab. This had been an unparalleled story of the political power coming out of martyrdom.

The seeds of this long tradition of martydom, of facing privation and even death for the sake of truth were sown in the hymns of Guru Nanak, but the tradition with Guru Arjan. The latter’s martyrdom has left a very deep imfact on the Sikh faith and followers.