The Sikh Panth is celebrating the 400th Prakash Purab of Guru Teghbahadar Sahib this year, and the focus is on the Guru’s legacy. While we yearn to learn from the Guru’s message, we often fall into the trap of conceiving the Guru-Personality in a set frame of stereotypical ideas. We sometimes stereotype to make sense of things around us and put them in a specific frame of mind. Occasionally, we do so out of convenience or create a pseudo-reality that suits our worldviews or perspectives.
Guru Teghbahadar Sahib’s life sketch is one such example of our compartmentalized worldview. While the Guru in his earthly journey exhibited myriad Divine colors, we can see only a few. Even though the Guru played an active role in the community, took part in the Battle of Kartarpur (1635) in his early life, and gave martyrdom for the freedom of life and expression, he is still portrayed as a recluse. We do not realize that each of the Guru’s responses was based on Divine principles of love, justice, humility, and forgiveness.
While the Guru worked to build further and strengthen the Sikh community, he faced many detractors, some of whom undermined the Sikh institutions and were also violent. This essay will explore Guru Teghbahadar Sahib’s responses and examine how his approach dynamically changed based on the issues and parties involved. To understand Guru's reaction to various situations of aggression, we will take three case studies, one each from within the family, the community, and the external world.
Family (Dhir Mal)
The first example is familial discords. As soon as Guru Harikrishan Sahib left the earthly realm and informed the sangat (congregation) that the next Guru Baba was at Bakala, many Guru-impostors cropped up. These imposters set up their seats at Bakala to lay claims to the Divine throne of Guru Nanak Sahib’s house. There were twenty-two major claimants; among them, the prominent ones were minas of Amritsar and many impostors from the sodhi clan.
The minas were the followers of Prithi Chand, the eldest son of Guru Ramdas Sahib, who had started his own parallel line after the Guru selected his younger son Arjan to succeed him. And among the sodhis, one of the significant claimants was Dhir Mal, who proved to be the biggest troublemaker.
Dhir Mal was the elder son of Baba Gurditta, who was the eldest son of Guru Harigobind Sahib. This was one reason why Dhir Mal believed that he was the rightful owner of the Guruship. His other claim to Guruship was that he had the original Adi Granth, which Bhai Gurdas wrote under the supervision of Guru Arjan Sahib. Custody of the Sikh scripture’s original manuscript (Kartarpuri Bir) had further emboldened him. In terms of familial connection, he was the nephew of Guru Teghbahadar Sahib, Baba Gurditta being the elder brother of Guru Teghbahadar Sahib.
Consequently, Dhir Mal was one of the many claimants sitting in Bakala before Makhan Shah Lubana discovered Guru Teghbahadar Sahib. To establish himself, Dhir Mal ran a parallel court. He hired courtiers to serve him in order to put up a show. Despite this, the Guru was discovered by Makhan Shah and then identified by Baba Gurditta, the head priest, and Divan Dargah Mal, the prime minister of Guru’s court. They offered Guru Teghbahadar Sahib the royal regalia of Guru Harikrishan Sahib, representing the Guru’s status as Guru, thus completing the ceremonial anointment. Once Guru Teghbahadar Sahib was established, the fake gurus started leaving slowly, but Dhir Mal remained adamant and stayed put; he continued to run his parallel court.
However, this still did not satisfy Dhir Mal’s hunger for power; he wanted to sit on the throne of Guru Nanak Sahib’s house. He hired a rogue named Shiha, who further engaged professional mercenaries to eliminate Guru Teghbahadar Sahib. One day, when the Guru’s court was not in session and the attendees had left, the mercenaries attacked the Guru. A few Sikhs, who were still present there, fought the mercenaries, while other Sikhs returned hearing the attack. During this incident, Dhir Mal shot the Guru. But, the attack was foiled, and the Guru only received a bullet scratch. Meanwhile, Dhir Mal’s men looted Sikhs’ offerings and other things from the Guru’s court before running away. The Sikhs chased Dhir Mal and his party up to his dwelling and took away everything, including the offerings, the Kartarpuri Bir, and even Dhir Mal’s personal belongings.
The Sikhs returned to the Guru with the offerings, Kartarpuri Bir and Dhir Mal’s personal items. The Sikh tradition beautifully preserves the Guru’s response when the Guru saw that.
What great did he do by taking away offerings,
but it does not suit us to be perturbed by it.¹
- Sukha Singh, Gurbilas Patshahi 10
Additionally, the Guru offered his advice to the Sikhs, which Kavi Santokh Singh records. The Guru asked the Sikhs to forgive Dhir Mal and return all his belongings and what he had looted from the Guru’s court. Since Gurbani (Guru’s word) was dearest to the Sikhs, some Sikhs might have insisted upon keeping at least the Kartarpuri Bir. But the Guru asked the Sikhs to return even that since the light of the Sabad (Infinite Wisdom) was already manifesting in the Person of the Guru.
Recognize forgiveness as the greatest austerity… return all that belongs to him; also ignore what he took away from us…
O son, why do you insist so much over it… do not keep it with us and place the Kartarpuri [bir] back.²
- Santokh Singh, Suraj Prakash
It is worth noting that sometimes we distort the Guru’s personality or see only a part of it based on how the Guru is described in history or through specific historical episodes. For instance, because we do not know much about the public life of the Master before he became the Guru, he is usually painted as a recluse or someone who did not play an active role in the community affairs earlier. Similarly, the Guru’s humility in forgiving Dhir Mal may be seen as a sign of a softer personality.
We do similar things with other Guru-Personalities - when we try to praise them by attaching earthly human qualities to their persona, for example, great-poet, peaceful and gentle, brave-warrior, skilled-general. But the Guru, being Divine-like and perfect, is all of these things at the same time and still above and beyond all these worldly qualities.
We can find many parallels to this response of the Guru in the Guru period itself; one example is of Guru Amardas Sahib. When Bhai Datu, the son of Guru Angad Sahib, did not like the fact that the Guruship went to Guru Amardas Sahib, he went to the court of Guru Amardas Sahib and kicked him. The devotees were shocked. However, the Guru got up and touched the feet of Bhai Datu with humility, saying that his bones have become hard due to his old age, and they must have hurt Bhai Datu’s tender feet. In addition, Guru Amardas Sahib left Goindwal, in all probability, to avoid further friction. He moved to his native village Basarke and started working for the growth and development of Sikhi from there.
Community (Mahants at Harimandar Sahib)
Our next case study is from the Guru’s community life. After the death of Meharban, a descendant of Prithi Chand, Harji Mina was installed in his place in 1640. Harji Mina now controlled Sri Harimandar Sahib (Amritsar). The absence of the sixth, seventh, and eighth Guru from the region helped the minas establish their control over the Gurduaras. Tradition informs us that when Guru Teghbahadar Sahib came to Amritsar to pay a visit (1664), the priests closed the doors of Sri Harimandar Sahib on the Guru at the behest of Harji. The Guru did not leave immediately; he waited for a while near Akal Takht Sahib before he got up to leave the city. The place where the Guru sat is now called Tham Sahib (the pillar of patience).
On his way out of the city, the Guru was greeted by a woman devotee named Mata Hariya from Walla village, who took him to her place and served him. When the Sikhs came to know about the incident, with the help of Makhan Shah, they got the gates of Sri Harimandar Sahib opened. The sangat collected offerings and went to the Walla village to pray for forgiveness; the Guru finally blessed the sangat.
When a Sikh institution or community space was at stake, even though the Guru did not fight, he did not leave immediately either. The Guru probably let the situation escalate to where the faithful would learn about the incident and organize and reclaim the community space. A community space and institution so carefully nurtured over many decades or centuries can not be easily given away. It also shows us that sometimes issues can be resolved just by mobilizing people and opinions without violence.
Unlike in the case of Dhir Mal, the Guru took a slightly different approach in the case of an institution. We notice many such examples of the Gurus not giving space to individuals who undermined institutions. One such example is of father and son, Bhai Satta and Balwand. They used to do kirtan (devotional singing of Sabads) at Guru Arjan Sahib’s court. Once Bhai Satta sought financial help from the Guru for his daughter's marriage. The Guru offered him donations that the devotees would give on that particular day. However, the offerings from that day were lower than usual. The father and son duo got displeased. They were led to believe that the devotees came to listen to their recital of the Sabad (Infinite Wisdom), and if they stopped doing kirtan, the devotees would not come to the Guru. The next day, they did not show up at the Guru’s court. Guru Arjan Sahib sent Sikhs to their house to bring them, but they refused and spoke arrogantly, saying that the kirtan happened only because of them.
The Guru did not tolerate this slight to kirtan; he started doing kirtan, and the sagat joined in. The Guru also instructed the sangat to stay away from the two. Over time the health of both father and son started deteriorating; nobody came near them. They soon realized their mistake and sought the help of Bhai Ladha, a Sikh from Lahore. The Guru forgave them on the prayer of Bhai Ladha. Bhai Satta and Balwand resumed their service of kirtan at the Guru’s court. Thus, the sanctity of the institution was preserved, and the tradition of kirtan continued.
External (Mughals and Ahoms)
The third case study is on Guru’s response to external discords. At the time of Guru Teghbahadar Sahib, the entire northeast was a part of the extended rule of the Mughals. Raja Ram Singh was the local king of one of the principalities of the Assam region. He was a good friend of the Guru from the time of Guru Harikrishan Sahib. He accompanied Guru Teghbahadar Sahib on his itineraries to Bengal. Raja Ram Singh is known in history to have appeased the emperor Aurangzeb multiple times and advised him not to use force against the Guru. Aurangzeb used to get intelligence to the effect that the Guru was politically active and was organizing communities against the Mughal state.
Meanwhile, a local tribe Ahom attacked Guwahati and wrested control of the city. The leader of that tribe was a monarch named Chakradhwaj Singh. Aurangzeb appointed Raja Ram Singh to get the city back from the Ahoms. This is the same region in which Kamrup fell, which was known for sorcery and black magic. People were scared to venture into that region. Ram Singh, being aware of it, sought the help of the Guru to accomplish this task. Both left Dakka together in December 1668 and reached Assam in February 1669.
As the forces under Ram Singh were approaching Guwahati, the Ahoms tribe sent a woman who did black magic to counter Ram Singh’s army, which was camped at Dhubri. A small river separated the woman and Ram Singh’s army. Tradition records that she tried all kinds of black magic. First, she is said to have thrown a twenty-six feet long stone at the Guru and the army, later an uprooted tree; none worked. Finally, Guru Teghbahadar Sahib shot an arrow, and the magic of the sorceress withered. The tribe fell at the feet of the Guru and asked for forgiveness. The Guru forgave and assured them that he did not mean harm; he was there only to broker peace. After advising Ram Singh not to go to war with the Ahoms, the Guru left for Bihar on a short sojourn.
However, while the Guru was away in Bihar, both sides started to prepare for war, not heeding the Guru’s advice. In the ensuing battle, Ram Singh’s nephew was killed. He laid a prolonged siege to the Ahom fort. Meanwhile, Ram Singh also learned that Aurangzeb killed his son. Aurangzeb had kept Ram Singh’s son in his captivity as security so that Ram Singh did not betray him. When Ram Singh came to know about this, he turned his back on Aurangzeb. In the meantime, the Guru returned. The Guru took this opportunity and sent an envoy to broker peace between the two parties. Finally, a settlement was reached due to the mediation and influence of the Guru. As a result, Guwahati remained independent of the Mughal rule. As per the agreement, boundaries were marked up in the Guru’s presence so that no side violated the other’s territory.
Since the armies on both sides were spared much bloodshed, they were extremely grateful to the Guru. The peace settlement was celebrated by a joint homage by both armies to a previously built Shrine of Guru Nanak Sahib. A Mound of Peace was raised at Dhubri with the red earth brought by both armies soldiers from the adjoining Rangamati and other areas. This monument stands even today, commemorating the Guru’s mediation.
The Guru’s diplomacy in response to discords is paralleled by many other Guru-Persons, who kept differences aside to keep or bring peace. One such example is of Guru Harigobind Sahib reconciling with emperor Jahangir after the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Sahib, even though the hostile nature of the Mughal state had never permanently changed. The relationship kept blowing hot and cold during Guru Harigobind Sahib’s reign itself. When the time came, the Sikhs even battled the Mughals at Rohilla (1621) in response to the Mughal military campaign against the growing influence of the Sikhs.
This response of Guru Harigobind Sahib is echoed in Guru Teghbahadar Sahib’s life as well. The ninth Guru is known to have valiantly fought in the Battle of Kartarpur (1635) in his formative years. Tradition informs us that it was because of this battle that Guru Teghbahadar Sahib was named so; his previous name was Tyag Mal. During the Guru’s reign in peacetime, his response to hostility consistently remained diplomatic and accommodating as long as the institutional sanctity of Sikhi was maintained. His actions always upheld the universal principles of liberty and justice. The Guru’s responses always remained dynamic, depending on the issues at hand and what was at stake.
There are great lessons to be learned from the great Guru’s responses. One is not to take attacks and affronts personally and to learn to forgive. At times, there is a need to identify whether an issue is about personal ego or one’s dignity and sovereignty. More than the actual issue, it is usually the individual ego and stubborn positions one takes that lead to escalations. The Guru teaches us to learn to keep our egos in check and work to better everyone.
But, when an institution or a principle is at stake, there is no room for compromise since the issue no longer remains personal. This is evident from the Guru’s decision to give the ultimate sacrifice of his life when the Kashmiri Pandits came to seek the Guru’s refuge to escape Aurangzeb’s forcible conversion, even though the Guru did not subscribe to the inequitable worldview of the Brahmins.
Consequently, as the Sikhs of the Guru, we are encouraged to always stand for and uphold the universal principles of the right to life, liberty, faith, and expression at every cost. That is the basis of a Divine aware existence and the essence of the Guru’s message to us.
¹ ਕਹਾ ਪੁਨ ਭਏ ਜੋ ਲੈ ਗਇਓ ਚੜ੍ਹਤ, ਵਹ ਨਹ ਕਿਛ ਚਿੰਤ ਹਮ ਕੋ ਸੁਹਾਇ।
² ਕਰਨੀ ਛਿਮਾ ਮਹਾਂ ਤਪ ਜਾਨ… ਫ਼ੇਰੋ ਵਸਤੁ ਜਿਤਕ ਤਿਨ ਕੇਰੀ, ਨਿਜ ਧਾਨ ਕੋ ਭੀ ਦੀਜੇ ਫ਼ੇਰੀ…
ਹੇ ਸੁਤ ਕਿਉ ਹਠ ਕਰੋ ਬਦੇਰ… ਹਮਰੇ ਸੰਗ ਨਾ ਰਾਖਨ ਕਰੋ, ਸ੍ਰੀ ਕਰਤਾਰਪੁਰ ਲੇ ਧਰੋ।