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Guru Arjan Sahib: The Sovereign-Martyr


Guru Arjan Sahib: The Sovereign-Martyr

Guru Arjan
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Guru Arjan Sahib: The Sovereign-Martyr


Guru Arjan Sahib was martyred as per the orders of Emperor Jahangir on 30 May 1606.

In the state of freedom, the Guru lives in the river like a fish.
Seeing the Divine, the light merged with the Light like a moth.
Consciousness connected with Infinite-Wisdom,
nothing entered awareness during torture like a deer.
In the Lotus-feet Sanctuary, the night was spent in joy-wealth like a bee.
The Guru never ceased to instruct, kept reciting the wisdom like a Babiha.
Perfection-oriented [Guru Arjan] recognized the natural inspired-company
as joy-fruit and love-flavor.
I am devoted to Guru Arjan.
  – Bhai Gurdas, Var 24, Pauri 23

Fish’s ecosystem is the water-divine. Moth is attracted to a flame. Deer is intoxicated by clever hunter’s sounds. Bee sleeps inside a flower at night.  Babiha, the rain bird, lovingly keeps calling: “Where is my Love?”  The Guru discovers joy-love amongst the Inspired.  And the Bhai is completely devoted to the Guru.  

Kurban is from Arabic Qurban, it means sacrifice of live-stock animal.  In Hebrew, Qorban means offering.  Etymologically, it refers to “a way or means of approaching someone” or “nearness.”  In Sikhi, it refers to the action that brings a Sikh closer to the Guru (the Perfection) or Ik Oankar (One Force).  Hence, kurbani refers to sacrifice, surrender, adoration, devotion, and so on.  It is found multiple times in the Guru Granth Sahib.


Guru Arjan Sahib was martyred as per the orders of Emperor Jahangir on 30 May 1606.  Jahangir in his memoirs wrote:

Pretending to be a spiritual guide, he had won over as devotees many simple-minded Indians and even some ignorant, stupid Muslims by broadcasting his claims to be a saint. They called him Guru. Many fools from all around had recourse to him and believed in him implicitly. For three or four generations they had been peddling this same stuff. For a long time I had been thinking that either this false trade should be eliminated or that he should be brought into the embrace of Islam. At length, when Khusraw passed by there, this inconsequential little fellow wished to pay homage to Khusraw. When Khusraw stopped at his residence, [Arjan] came out and had an interview with [Khusraw]. Giving him some elementary spiritual precepts picked up here and there … When this was reported to me, I realized how perfectly false he was and ordered him brought to me. I awarded his houses and dwellings and those of his children to Murtaza Khan, and I ordered his possessions and goods confiscated and him executed.
  – Jahangirnama 27b-28a, Translated by Wheeler M. Thackston

The Guru’s martyrdom impacted everything in South Asia. It transformed the Sikh community.

What were the reasons for this order, its context?

But before we delve into that, let us attempt to take a glimpse of Guru Arjan Sahib.  Arjan is literally the Archer, and Guru Arjan Sahib is beyond the mark of excellence, incomprehensible to vulgar eyes and mind.

In Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Arjan Sahib is described by a Bhatt (bard) as Divine-Like:  “Mathura says there is no difference, Guru Arjan is the manifestation of All-Pervasive” (1408).  Guru Arjan Sahib visibly exhibits divine qualities.  That’s the Sikh narrative to base foundational understanding on Guru Arjan Sahib.

Guru Arjan Sahib gifted the physical manifestations of culture of Nam – the identification with Divine – openly and freely.  Through Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhi nurtures the surat – the consciousness of humanity and via Harimandar Sahib the ruh – the human spirit.  The Sikhs were trained to continue the Guru’s mission perpetually:  “The Guru and the Sikh, the Sikh and the Guru are same, so long as the Sikh furthers the Guru’s mission” proclaims Guru Granth Sahib (442).

The Sabad (Infinite Wisdom in the hymns of Guru Granth Sahib) revealed to Guru Arjan Sahib in Rag Bhairau (sung in the morning of any season and exhibits deep introspection, solemn seriousness and peaceful serenity), the Guru emphatically declares:

My Gosai and Allah is the One.
I left both Hindu and Muslim in their fight.
I do not go to Hajj at Ka’ba nor Puja at Tirath.
I serve the One and no other.
I neither perform Puja nor Namaz.
I salute the formless One in my heart.
I am neither Hindu nor Muslim.
My body and being belongs to Allah and Ram.
  – Guru Granth Sahib, 1136

Guru Arjan Sahib articulated a distinct identity that was very clearly different from Hinduism and Islam.  The Guru offered the Sabad as the treasure, compiled it in now entitled Guru Granth Sahib.  The Guru built the Sikh center, starting from the Harimandar Sahib in the now theo-political complex along with Akal Takht Sahib.  Both the Wisdom and the Center, entered in the Sikh psyche and identity as vital elements, continue so, even today.

Michael Ondaatje in The English Patient describes the Harimandar Sahib’s capacity to recharge all its visitors.  When the human race at the ‘Temple of All-Pervasive’ sings the love-songs from the Guru Granth Sahib, they recognize the One Force within and around:

Singing is at the center of worship.  You hear the song, you smell the fruit from the temple gardens – pomegranates, oranges.  The temple is a haven in the flux of life, accessible to all.  It is the ship that crossed the ocean of ignorance.

The Panth (Sikh Collective) needs the Granth and its open access to its Center for the people to form egalitarian societies across borders.  And this continues to forge Sikhi for people across ages and regions.

In today’s terms, Guru Arjan Sahib prepared a treasure-anthology which is something more than scripture, manifesto and constitution combined.  He unveiled the Legacy-Heritage in the center with open access to all at Sri Amritsar Jio.  By removing copyright on “God” and declaring “Head of the State needs to be qualified to sit on the Throne” (1088), the Guru challenged the power centers of both the religion and the politics.  Of course, the Guru was perceived as the threat by the priestly and ruling classes.

The martyrdom took place under the orders of Emperor Jahangir during the second year of his reign.  Nothing exists in the vacuum, most likely it was the combination of familial animosity, Sikhi growth, and political challenge.  Let’s look at some contemporary historical evidence and Sikh memory tradition for possible reasons for the Guru’s arrest and martyrdom.

In the last fifty years or so, Dr. Ganda Singh found, edited, translated, and inspired many historical documents in context of the Guru’s martyrdom.  Sirdar Kapur Singh detailed what we now call ISIS-like and Hindutva-like ideologies and their laws and roles.  Prof. Harinder Singh ‘Mahibub’ painstakingly cites multiple secondary Sikh sources to show the Brahminicial elements undermining the Guru.

Prithi Chand, the Guru’s elder brother, was initially instigated by Birbal, a staunch Brahmin born as Mahesh Das (Bhatt), under Akbar’s reign.  Birbal was the only Hindu to adopt Akbar’s Din-i-Ilahi (Godism; jumble of Islamic, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist teaching with Akbar as deity).  Birbal was disturbed by the growth of Sikhi and had the Emperor’s ear.  Birbal made unsuccessful efforts against the institutions of Sabad and Langar (casteless and classless free kitchen) by imposing taxes which Guru Arjan Sahib refused to pay.  Birbal was furious:  “I am a commander of many men; how dare the Guru disobey me? Moreover, I bear the Emperor's order. Even if it be the Guru's house, it is for Sikhs and not for me to respect it."  Birbal wanted to destroy Amritsar, but was ordered by the Emperor to head to Swat valley to defeat Yusufzais; Birbal along with his 8,000 men army perished in 1583.


Prithi Chand was constantly seeking revenge.  He managed to get court orders for splitting the Guruship; sought the Guru’s assassination via revenue officer Sulhi Khan and his brother Sulbi Khan, and unsuccessfully tried to poison the Guru’s son, then child Hargobind.  Guru Arjan Sahib’s personal testimony recorded in the Guru Granth Sahib is very revealing:  “My Eternal-Perfection is the protector.  Through Grace, the Divine extended the Hand to protect Hargobind, now safe and secure” (620) and “The Divine protected me from Sulhi; Sulhi’s hand couldn’t touch me, Sulhi died disgracefully” (825).  Prithi Chand and his Mina descendants continued to play a role in creating an alternative granth and guruship in opposition to the successor Sikh Gurus, even after Guru Arjan Sahib’s martyrdom.  

Divan Chandu Shah was a wealthy banker and revenue officer at Lahore’s Mughal Court.  His priest proposed the Guru’s son for his daughter.  He agreed reluctantly while publicly remarking “the Guru’s house was too low for his wealth and status.”  The Guru sought the Sikh consultancy, for the proposal was going to create an alliance via marriage with the State’s official. The Sangat (Sikh Community) advised against it; Chandu became hostile towards the Guru.  As foe, he conspired with others to slander the Guru when Jahangir visited Lahore in April 1606.

Jahangir’s reign is known to fuel Islamic fanaticism born out of fear and suspicion.  Islam became the state religion and he became the defender of Islam by keeping his promise to the Naqshbandi order under the leadership of Shaikh Ahmad Sarhindi Mujaddid Alf-i- Sani (1564-1624) headquartered at Sarhind.  Naqshbandi offered Prince Salim, later Jahangir as Akbar’s successor, full support on the condition to completely change the imperial policy towards non-Muslims. Their staunchest advocate at the court was Shaikh Farid Bukhari who presented himself to be Islam's Prophet of the second millennium.

Sikhi was perceived as a threat to Islamic supremacy.  Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi’s letter to Shaikh Farid Bukhari entitled Murtaza Khan, Governor of Panjab, composed after the Guru’s martyrdom details ISIS-like policies in Maktubat-i Imam-i Rabbani:

These days the accursed infidel of Gobindval was very fortunately killed … With whatever intention and purpose they are killed – the humiliation of infidels is for Muslims, life itself. Before this Kafir (Infidel) was killed, I had seen in a dream that the Emperor of the day had destroyed the crown of the head of Shirk or infidelity. It is true that this infidel [Guru Arjun] was the chief of the infidels and a leader of the Kafirs. The object of levying Jizya (tax on non-Muslims) on them is to humiliate and insult the Kafirs, and Jihad against them and hostility towards them are the necessities of the Mohammedan faith.

Prithi Chand (Guru Arjan’s brother), Divan Chandu Shah (imperial servant), Murtaza Khan (government functionary), Shaikh Ahmad Sarhindi (Naqshbandi leader), Birbal (Jahangir’s courtier and adviser), all colluded to get Jahangir to issue the order against the Guru.  Sikh chroniclers maintain the man in charge of the torture and execution was Chandu.

Lahore’s river Ravi was the nourisher of the city since ancient times.  Mausd Sa’d Salman’s (1046-1121) rubai (Persian muse) to river Ravi elucidates:

O Ravi, if paradise is to be found, it is you,
if there is a kingdom fully equipped, it is you,
water in which is the lofty heaven is you,
a spring in which there are a thousand rivers is you.

Sai Mian Mir, Sufi Saint of Qadri Order at Lahore, tried to intercede on behalf of the Guru.  The Sufi who laid the foundation stone of Harimandar Sahib wasn’t yet able to see the Ravi was waiting for the Divine-like Archer.  Sai out of intense moral cry against injustice asked the Guru:  “My friend, just give me one word and I shall cause the thrones of Delhi and Lahore to come crashing down.”  Sai could do that!  Once Emperor Jahangir waited impatiently to see the Sai, upon entrance he asked:  "On the doorstep of a faqir, there should be no sentry".  Sai replied:  "They are there so that the dog-like selfish men may not enter."

The Guru in his love-wisdom responded to the Sai:  

Storm may kill the flowers but cannot deaden the seeds. My suffering according to the sweet will of the Divine is the symbol of oppressed people who have not yet attained knowledge. This night on which I am on the verge of casting off this vesture is like a revolution that precedes full justice. The axe is laid up to the roots of intolerance and tyranny. Let us leave Jahangir alone in the courtroom of their conscience and before the supreme court of the Divine, whose sun shines upon the innocents and the criminals alike.

And while listening to the Guru, the Sufi embraced silence!

According to Sikhan di Bhagatmala (or Gian Ratnavali by Bhai Mani Singh the scholar-martyr) when two Sikhs Bhai Sigaru and Bhai Jaita couldn’t bear witnessing the torturous body of Guru Arjan Sahib, the Guru responded:  “I will bear arms in the embodiment of Harigobind.  Now, the time is the age of darkness.  With armed training, I will overpower the politics of the politician, and by comprehending the love of Infinite Wisdom, I will overpower the spirituality of the spiritualists.”

For the Sikhs and the world, the Guru demonstrates exhausting all means.  The Guru may be tortured, but not humiliated or enslaved.  This is not merely an insight on the times ahead, or the Sikh just war principle on arms struggle, or punishing the imperial hegemonic leaders.  The Guru is beyond vengeance or nationalism.  The Guru journeys the divine bliss to the death’s destination!

In the twentieth century, Allama Mohammad Iqbal in Kinar-e-Ravi (On Ravi’s Banks) evokes many historical associations:

Raft in its music, in evening’s hush, the Ravi;
But how it is with this heart, do not ask…
Yet never knowing what is death;
For it may disappear from sight, but cannot perish.

Even when Sampuran Singh Kalra becomes Gulzar due to the 1947 Partition, he admits:  “It is I who have been left behind and drowned, it is I who have come this side” in his Ravi Par (Across the Ravi).   But, an unknown Panjabi poet still asks:

Pray tell us, O’ bank of Ravi
Tales of the past
Those who ruled here
What happened to them?

Puran Singh in The Spirit Born People tells us Guru Arjan Sahib’s Sukhmani is “like a river of peace in which we can dip our soul … there is, unknown to ourselves, a strange effect on our minds.  And there is a reflection on the body.  The mind mounts up to some delectable heights and the body becomes light and ethereal and soars with it.  We feel bodiless.  In this river of peace, we must plunge daily and refresh ourselves.”

A contemporary Jesuit letter written from Lahore on 25 September 1606 by Father Jerome Xavier records the last month of Guru Arjan Sahib’s life, including martyrdom:

When the Prince [Khusru] came flying from Agra, he passed where a gentile called the Guru [Arjan Sahib], who amongst the gentiles is like the Pope amongst us. He was held as a saint and was as such venerated; because of this reputation of his and because of his high dignity the Prince went to see him … The King [Jahangir] came to know of this and after having imprisoned the Prince he ordered for the said Guru to be brought.  Having him imprisoned … sentenced to a hundred thousand cruzados [gold coin] … each and every day he gave new torments, affronts, torture to the saint … and thus amongst many trials, pains and torments … in that way their good Pope died.
  – Father Ferdinand Guerreiro s.j., Annual Relations, 1601-07, Part IV, Book III, Chapter V, for 148-
     151r, Lisbon, 1609

A sad night descended on the Sikhs.  


At dawn, the Guru recited Japuji at the banks of river Ravi.  Then, Guru Arjan Sahib eloped in the waves of Ravi as Guru Nanak Sahib had eloped in the waters of river Vein.  Guru Arjan Sahib came out of Ravi in the body of Guru Harbogind Sahib.  Guru Arjan Sahib bathed in river Bias before compiling the Guru Granth Sahib, and how now he dives in the Ravi at dawn, to hold the Kirpan!


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Written By

Senior Fellow, Research & Policy

Harinder Singh is the Senior Fellow at the Sikh Research Institute. He holds a BS in Aerospace Engineering from Wichita State University, an MS in Engineering Management from the University of Kansas, and an MPhil from Punjab University in the linguistics of the Guru Granth Sahib. 

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