To understand the significance of Guru Tegbahadar Sahib’s ideology and martyrdom, we need to understand that there was a broader cause in creating a new set of discourse pertaining to human rights, justice, and freedom, exemplary through Guru Teghbahadar Sahib’s own life and martyrdom. There is a broader universal significance and concern for larger humanity than his contribution to a limited or a particular religion or community. His martyrdom needs to be studied on two aspects: one, the broader and overall significance of standing for truth and raising a voice for the welfare of others beyond the limited sense of the individuated self; and second, by studying the particularity of laying his life for the protection of the Hindu community that was facing forced conversions, killings and atrocities at the hands of the Mughals. Therefore, the focal point is to study the broader significance of the reason for martyrdom in the particularity of fighting for the case of the Hindus against the Mughals. One thing that needs to be clearly understood is that this was not a fight of one community against the other, but it was a battle of right against wrong, truth against falsehood, and righteousness against discontent. Therefore, hypothetically if the situation were vice versa, the Guru would have chosen to stand by the truth, irrespective of the community. The Mughal rulers had significantly less regard for human rights and the principle of justice. They chose to measure everything around them with the yardstick of their own belief and sought to force their religiosity upon innocent citizens irrespective of their religion, culture, and faith. Moreover, their tyranny was increasing day by day. There was instability in the agrarian situation. The poor farmers and the cultivators were constantly being exploited. The Jagirdars (serfs) being transferred from one place to another were prone to corrupt practices and constantly exploited the helpless and poor farmers. The Zamindars (landlords) also gave in to the pressures of the Jagirdars. (Singh, Fauja.p.32) The defaulters were subjected to the Muslim criminal code of law in such matters. In contrast, the Hindu code of law applied to Hindus and the Muslim code of law to Muslims separately on social issues. With time, the situation intensified, and the economic oppression increased immensely. This problem was not a problem of the Hindus alone, as the ordinary Muslims were also in trouble. This is evident from the fact that a prominent Muslim fakir, Adam Hafiz, joined Guru Teghbahadar Sahib in the Sikh movement that stood against all forms of tyranny. (Singh, Fauja. P 36)
For Guru Teghbahadar Sahib, spirituality was supreme, and his belief was free of any ideological bearings of the religions prevailing then. Therefore, he laid an assertion on truth, the path led by Guru Nanak Sahib and the other seven Gurus before him. Guru Tegbahadar Sahib, in four of his saloks (couplets), gives a new dimension and a new shape to the Sikh philosophical thought. In a way, it would not be wrong to say that these saloks are an indication or even the foundational ideas of the Sikh collective community, the “Panth” in the making. A new community that would stand out with a distinct identity was to be defined by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. The “Panth '' would focus on the principle of justice and stand for the truth at all times whenever the forces of hate, fanaticism, and tyranny would be prevalent anywhere in the world. Dr. Devinderpal Singh aptly suggests the relevance of the sacrifice of Guru Teghbahadar Sahib in contemporary times as:
The great sacrifice made by Guru Tegh Bahadur ji to vindicate the right of the people to profess and practice the faith meant, in fact, the assertion of the principle of justice for which the ruling Mughal rulers of the day had very scant regard. For this reason, the life, career, and teachings of Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib are of immense significance even in contemporary times, when the forces of hate, fanaticism, and tyranny are still very dominant and assertive. (Singh, Davinderpal. p.48)
The essence of this is visible in the four saloks (Salok Mahala 9: Salok 16, 51, 53, 54) revered by the ninth Guru. Dr. Taran Singh suggests that these four saloks could be
revered only at a particular historical moment after years of experience at a time when they were most relevant. By the time when all other efforts had failed was when these saloks were uttered. The right time for these saloks to be revealed had arrived. These saloks would change the Indian history. These saloks gave birth to Khalsa panth. They gave birth to the declaration “Waheguru ji ki Fateh.” They are immersed in the foundation of Sikhi and the time came when Guru Teg Bahadur Sahib revealed them.” (Singh, Taran. p. viii; trans. Self.)
These saloks stand out in the poetic tradition of those times. They carve the principles of “Sikhi sidhant” (the Sikh Principles) and describe the fundamental aspects on which the “Khalsa Panth” was to be established soon. These principles are practically possible for those human beings who stand by truth no matter what community or religion they may belong to. Based on Guru Nanak Sahib’s assertion on truth, these saloks offer a truth-oriented action approach where wisdom and action serve together. The Truth and IkOankar are inseparable. Truth is the consciousness (chetna), and consciousness is the first parameter for realizing that truth leads to an understanding of what is absolute and just. Wisdom and the endower of wisdom that is the enlightened one are described in the salok:
(The one who) does not give threats to anyone, nor accepts threats from others;
Nanak’s states: Listen O mind! call that (alone as) wise.16.i
- Guru Granth Sahib 1427
While Guru Sahib focuses on detachment from worldly pleasures, the importance of remembrance and freedom is emphasized in this salok. Guru Sahib focuses on the principle of absolute freedom, freedom from the fear of everything at all. This freedom leads the seeker towards the attainment of self-power in the true spiritual self. Once the endower of wisdom attains this consciousness, there is liberation from fear or threat. Such a person neither threatens anyone nor is threatened by anyone. This is a declaration of the true sentiment that a Sikh is to follow. Guru Teghbahadar Sahib is defining the parameters on which a Sikh is to be shaped. A Sikh should be the endower of wisdom who seeks and stands for the everlasting truth against all oppressions and is never fearful of anyone. A Sikh stands for righteousness and truth. Such an insightful person is never a threat to anyone, never believes in threatening anyone at all; neither does a Sikh live in fear of anyone, nor does a Sikh accept threat.
Next is salok 51 for this study; Guru Teghbahadar Sahib prepares for the future that would soon disclose the said time’s atrocities. It is then that a great sacrifice ordaining the prediction indicated through the name given by his father, Guru Harigobind Sahib, who had called his son Tyag Mal, was to happen. “Tyag '' meaning renunciation. Guru Teghbahadar is known as “Maha-Tyagi'' or “Maha-Balidani,” meaning the one who offers the greatest sacrifice or the one who is the greatest martyr. Through this salok, it is clear that this martyrdom was pre-ordained as per the command of IkOankar. The Guru, through this salok, sends a message of resilience and faith in IkOankar and how every Sikh is expected to live a life by accepting the will of IkOankar, therefore not to unnecessarily worry about things not in control of human beings. This martyrdom in history has been the greatest of all, one of its kind; it was not coincidental but determined by the will of IkOankar. Therefore, an example of selflessness had to be set to establish a strong community based on the saint-soldier (‘sant-sipahi’) ideology who would imbibe a rare combination of the Guru-oriented wisdom and unmatchable bravery of a warrior.
Worry for that, what is unexpected.
Nanak states: This is the way of the world; no one is permanent (here).51. ii
- Guru Granth Sahib 1428
The Guru gives a message to the followers that since no one is permanent, one should not worry about death as it is inevitable. Perhaps it would not be wrong to consider that the Guru indicated that the Sikhs were to serve others while living and finally lay their life for a larger human cause. Through this salok, Guru Teghbahadar Sahib offers a sense of liberation from anxiety, worry, and fear of death.
The following two saloks 53-54 for study in the present paper need to be read together. There are different opinions of scholars regarding the revelation of the salok 53; some suggest that it was a message sent to the child Gobind Rai by his father, Guru Teghbahadar Sahib, who sought an answer to check the spiritual preparedness of his son for the future. Bhai Santokh Singh and other traditional scholars feel that the salok number 54 following salok number 53 was an answer from Gobind Rai. However, in the Guru Granth Sahib, both the saloks are attributed to Guru Teghbahadar Sahib. Interestingly, salok 53 is considered epistolatory: a letter or a message, while salok 54 is explanatory. The significance of both the saloks is that they portray the powerful vis a vis the powerless, leading towards a process for the liberation of oneself from the clutches of the powerful. In salok 53 the Guru asks:
Strength is lost, bondages have gripped; nothing is happening by making effort.
Nanak’s states: Now it is (only Your) support; render help (to me) like (You helped) the elephant.53. iii
- Guru Granth Sahib 1429
Guru Teghbahadar Sahib reveals that when spiritual strength is lost, bondages of material attachment overpower human beings. One cannot rid oneself of these allurements even if one makes several efforts. Guru Sahib further explains that in such a situation, one should seek the support of IkOankar. As IkOankar renders support to those seeking IkOankar’s shelter in the same way as IkOankar protected the elephant from the clutches of an octopus or a crocodile in one of the folkloric stories. Four keywords have been used in these saloks: Balu (strength, power), Bandahan (bondage), Upai (effort), and Ot (sanctuary, support). In salok 53, finally, there is a supplication to IkOankar, an Ardas, or a prayer taking shelter in IkOankar. In salok 54, these keywords emerge as faith, Balu (strength, power), and Bandahan (bondage) have a causal relationship. When spiritual strength is lost, bondages overpower, but bondages are removed when spiritual strength is gained. Thus, efforts fructify, and IkOankar is the ultimate support of everyone.
Spiritual Strength has been (attained) bondages have been removed, everything happens by making effort.
Nanak states: Everything is in Your hand; You alone come to help.54. iv
- Guru Granth Sahib 1429
These four saloks lay the foundation of a new beginning with Khalsa Panth. The overall message of these four saloks is that the Sikhs are required to follow the Guru-oriented wisdom and lead a righteous life while rendering selfless service to those in need for the sake of Truth. Death also becomes meaningful when laid for Truth’s sake and the welfare of others if need be. In doing so, spiritual strength is attained that liberates one from all bondages and all kinds of weakness as IkOankar aids individuals’ efforts.
These are considered new principles of the revolution that become instrumental in making a new world order that would further profess to fight for truth, righteousness, and justice for all. We need to ponder the all-inclusive approach that the Guru envisioned and stood against tyranny, violence, and exploitation of the helpless. In doing so, the Guru suggests that individuals have the freedom to practice their faith (as they choose to) with dignity, without any force or pressure by dominating powerful agencies. It is evident that Guru Teghbahadar Sahib not just initiates a discourse of human rights, individual freedom, and justice but presents an action-oriented revolution by serving an example from his own life through martyrdom. Later, in the Western political discourse, notions of human rights became central.
In the present, it is believed that these concerns evolved with the Western thought, but Dr. Kehar Singh in ‘Understanding the Sacrifice of Guru Teg Bahadur’ contends that even before the popularity of the notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity that originated in the political discourse with popular movements in the Western discourse primarily with John Locke (1632-1704) in the seventeenth century and in the late eighteenth century with Rousseau (1762), the Gurus had not just been promoting these ideas but practicing them in their life, already in the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries. They posed a challenge to the oppressive rulers who did not believe in the concept of human rights and dignity for all. The Guru’s stood against those rulers “who remained indifferent to the exploitation and oppression of the common people and ( to those)who felt despondent and helpless.” (Singh, Kehar. p. 14). He adds:
The Gurus offered a ray of hope and a positive course of action for personal and social liberation. Their approach was a matter of fact and setting an example of righteous behaviour by their own conduct. This was for bringing about psychic, cultural, and social transformation as a necessary condition for a dignified life for all. Viewed in this context, the sacrifice (1675) of the ninth Guru was nothing short of a watershed event. (Singh, Kehar. p. 14)
Therefore, it is mandatory to read the martyrdom of Guru Teghbahadar Sahib in the light of righteousness and collective human concern. Sikh historian and poet Sainapati in 1711 in Sri Gurshobha described Guru Teghbahadar Sahib as the protector of the entire creation (srist). He uses the word chadar as a metaphor to indicate that Guru Tegbahadar Sahib provided shelter of his protection to everyone equally:
Then appeared Guru Tegh Bahadur on the firmament,
Who sheltered the whole creation with his grace.
He upheld the right to religious freedom and deeds,
Which immortalised his Saga in the age of kalyuga.||14||
His sacrifice came to be praised throughout the world,
As he had safeguarded religious freedom all over.
His deed came to be hailed in the three worlds,
As the Divine Lord had stood by the Divine Guru.||15||
The right to put Tilak, wear Janeu and sit in religious congregation,
Remained in practice permanently with Divine Guru’s grace.
As he departed for heavenly abode in the cause of religion,
His successor came to be called Guru Gobind Singh.||16||
(Sainapati. Trans. Kulwant Singh p.7)
What is important is that Sainapati pointedly remarks that Guru Teghbahadar Sahib “upheld the right to religious freedom and deeds'' (ਕਰਮ ਧਰਮ). Secondly, he says that “he had safeguarded religious freedom all over'' (ਸਰਬ ਧਰਮ ਬੰਚਯੋ), third, he emphasizes “The right to put Tilak, wear Janeu and sit in the religious congregation” (ਤਿਲਕ ਜਨੇਊ ਅਰੁ ਧਰਮਸਾਲਾ). Here, it is important to notice that Sainapati emphasizes the collective concern for the entire creation (ਸ੍ਰਿਸਟਿ) that is an extension of concern even beyond the human race. He includes the fauna, flora, and the complete compass of the cosmos in the purview of Guru’s cause. The particular focus on the Kashmiri Pandits visiting Guru Teghbahadar Sahib and seeking shelter indicates his popularity and faith in him. Many other famous warriors could have offered to protect the Hindus from Mughals, but why did the Kashmiri brahmins only approach Guru Teghbahadar Sahib? This is a critical question. In Sri Gur Panth Prakash (1841), an answer to this question is available.
Historian Rattan Singh Bangu clearly states that:
Guru Tegh Bahadur came to be known as the bravest of the brave. As his fame spread far and wide in the whole world.
Whosoever felt oppressed, tortured, and aggrieved,
sought his (Guru Teghbahadur’s) protection and felt relieved. (5)
Human beings all over the world are desirous of comforts alone,
They alone seek His grace who come across suffering in life.
They received instant relief who sought his protection and,
His fame spread all over the world for his alleviation of human suffering. (6)
(Bangu, Rattan Singh. Trans Kulwant Singh, p.58-59)vi
It is important to realize that Guru Teghbahadar Sahib’s fame had reached far and wide. He was famous not just in the Indian subcontinent but in the whole world. Therefore, the brahmins from Kashmir came to seek his protection. Simultaneously, Rattan Singh Bangu does not restrict this discourse to the saga of the conversation and protection of Kashmiri pandits alone. He explains that in protecting Kashmiri pandits and the Hindus, the Guru aimed at a broader universal significance. His motive was establishing the cause for Truth and protecting human rights in the protection of the Hindus. He states:
Then Guru Tegh Bahadur was the next successor,
Who gave up his life for the protection of others’ human rights.
He made the supreme sacrifice in this Dark Age (Kaliyuga),
And protected the religious rights and rituals of the Hindus. (7)
(Bangu, Rattan Singh. Trans Kulwant Singh, p.56-57)vii
The line “Who gave up his life for the protection of others’ human rights” is most important here. Once again, along with protecting the Hindus from forced conversion, the larger purpose was to protect human rights itself.
Moreover, Bhai Santokh Singh in Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth, on page 803, also claims that as Guru Teghbahadar ji left the world, he was surrounded by many Devtas (illuminated beings) who welcomed the Guru by singing in his praise. Through this appreciation, Bhai Santokh Singh describes the real purpose of Guru Teghbahadar ji’s martyrdom as:
Whenever the world departs from its natural course of conduct, it is then that You take a form which is not surprising or a miracle; you are the savior and the endower of righteousness. (9)
In case, righteousness (Dharam) is destroyed, no one including us will remain in the world. First, You create (give birth to) this creation, and then you look after its well-being. (10)
Whoever turns away from the true conduct, You destroy that being. You always become the protector of all; how can one describe the kind of appreciation that the Devtas did in praise of Guru Sahib. (11)
(Singh, Santokh. Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth, Trans. Into English Self. p.803)
In these lines, the focus is on righteousness (Dharma). Some scholars preferred calling Guru Teghbahadar Sahib “Dharam ki Chadar,” while many scholars in the twentieth century referred to him as “Hind Ki Chadar.” These titles depict his contribution, but these titles remain limited to particular contexts alone and tend to overlook the Guru’s motive as Universal and all-inclusive. The idea of Hind, the concept of nation that we see today, was not the same in the period of Gurus. Nation conceptually is an eighteenth-century construct in the Western discourse. At the same time, the significance of Guru’s martyrdom gave a discourse of universalism, with emphasis on human rights and dignity for all individuals equally, irrespective of their community, religion, caste, creed, or sex and freedom to live with liberty in the shared world created by IkOankar.
Towards the conclusion, it may be mentioned that Guru Teghbahadar Sahib made the supreme sacrifice by laying his life for the welfare of humankind because he was pained to see the suffering of fellow beings. In this century, when the entire world is facing the oppression of the majority forces; where the haves are indifferent towards the need of the have-nots and do not shun from being exploitative towards them; where Islamophobia, marginalization of the lower castes, discrimination based on race; and oppression in the name of gender is on a spread; where other minorities are being threatened; where the Sikh minorities are labeled as terrorist time and again; where laws against interfaith marriages are being passed; where restrictions are being forced upon love; where peasants are struggling for their rights, this martyrdom acquires immediate relevance and meaning. Therefore, the martyrdom of Guru Teghbahadar Sahib is to be understood as a resistance to injustice, a voice against the unwarranted forces oppressing the innocent and common citizens, and not just an opposition to the tyranny of the Mughal forces, but a refusal to accept any form of oppression or unjust agency.
iਭੈ ਕਾਹੂ ਕਉ ਦੇਤ ਨਹਿ ਨਹਿ ਭੈ ਮਾਨਤ ਆਨ ॥
ਕਹੁ ਨਾਨਕ ਸੁਨਿ ਰੇ ਮਨਾ ਗਿਆਨੀ ਤਾਹਿ ਬਖਾਨਿ ॥੧੬॥
iiਚਿੰਤਾ ਤਾ ਕੀ ਕੀਜੀਐ ਜੋ ਅਨਹੋਨੀ ਹੋਇ ॥
ਇਹੁ ਮਾਰਗੁ ਸੰਸਾਰ ਕੋ ਨਾਨਕ ਥਿਰੁ ਨਹੀ ਕੋਇ ॥੫੧॥
iiiਬਲੁ ਛੁਟਕਿਓ ਬੰਧਨ ਪਰੇ ਕਛੂ ਨ ਹੋਤ ਉਪਾਇ ॥
ਕਹੁ ਨਾਨਕ ਅਬ ਓਟ ਹਰਿ ਗਜ ਜਿਉ ਹੋਹੁ ਸਹਾਇ ॥੫੩॥
ivਬਲੁ ਹੋਆ ਬੰਧਨ ਛੁਟੇ ਸਭੁ ਕਿਛੁ ਹੋਤ ਉਪਾਇ ॥
ਨਾਨਕ ਸਭੁ ਕਿਛੁ ਤੁਮਰੈ ਹਾਥ ਮੈ ਤੁਮ ਹੀ ਹੋਤ ਸਹਾਇ ॥੫੪॥
vਪ੍ਰਗਟ ਭਏ ਗੁਰੁ ਤੇਗ ਬਹਾਦਰ। ਸਗਲ ਸ੍ਰਿਸਟਿ ਪੈ ਜਾਕੀ ਚਾਦਰ।
ਕਰਮ ਧਰਮ ਕੀ ਜਿਨਿ ਪਤਿ ਰਾਖੀ। ਅਟਲ ਕਰੀ ਕਲਿਜੁਗ ਮੈ ਸਾਖੀ॥14॥
ਸਗਲ ਸ੍ਰਿਸਟਿ ਜਾ ਕਾ ਜਸ ਭਯੋ। ਜਿਹ ਤੇ ਸਰਬ ਧਰਮ ਬੰਚਯੋ। ਤੀਨ ਲੋਕ ਮੈ ਜੈ ਜੈ ਭਈ।
ਸਤਿਗੁਰੁ ਪੈਜ ਰਾਖਿ ਇਮ ਲਈ॥15॥
ਤਿਲਕ ਜਨੇਊ ਅਰੁ ਧਰਮਸਾਲਾ। ਅਟਲ ਕਰੀ ਗੁਰੁ ਭਏ ਦਯਾਲਾ। ਧਰਮ ਹੇਤ ਪ੍ਰਭੁ ਪੁਰਹਿ
ਸਿਧਾਏ। ਗੁਰੁ ਗੁਬਿੰਦ ਸਿੰਘ ਕਹਿਲਾਏ॥16॥
viਤੇਗ ਬਹਾਦਰ ਬਡ ਕਲ ਧਾਰੀ। ਪ੍ਰਗਟ ਭਈ ਗਲ ਦੁਨੀਆਂ ਸਾਰੀ।
ਜਾਂ ਪੈ ਆਇ ਪਰੈ ਕੋ ਦੁਖ। ਪਰੈ ਚਰਨ ਆ ਹੋਵੈ ਸੁਖ।5।
ਦੁਨੀਆ ਮਤਲਬ ਸੁਖ ਕੀ ਸਾਰੀ। ਆਵੈ ਸ਼ਰਨੀ ਜਿਹ ਭੈ ਭਾਰੀ।
ਲਗਤ ਚਰਨ ਹੁਇ ਤੁਰਤ ਸੁਖਾਰੈ। ਪ੍ਰਗਟ ਭਈ ਯਹ ਗਲ ਜਗ ਸਾਰੈ।6।
viiਤੇਗ ਬਹਾਦਰ ਫਿਰ ਗੁਰ ਭਯੋ। ਪਰਸ੍ਵਾਰਥ ਹਿਤ ਜਿਨ ਸਿਰ ਦਯੋ।
ਕਲਜੁਗ ਮੈਂ ਵਡ ਸਾਕਾ ਕੀਯੋ। ਧਰਮ ਕਰਮ ਰਖ ਹਿੰਦੂਅਨ ਲੀਯੋ।7।
Bangu, Rattan Singh. Sri Gur Panth Prakash (1841). Trans. Kulwant Singh. Chandigarh: Institute of Sikh Studies, 2006.
Sainapati. Sri Gurshobha (1711). Trans. Kulwant Singh. Chandigarh: Institute of Sikh Studies, 2014.
Singh, Davinderpal. ‘Teachings of Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji: A Perspective’ Studies in Sikhism and Comparative Religion: Special Issue on Sri Guru Teg Bahadur ji. Vol XLIV, No.2 : A Biannual Journal. July-Dec, 2020. (p. 48-69)
Singh, Fauja. ‘Execution Guru Tegh Bahadur: A New Look’ The Sikh Review, Issue 265, Vol 24 Jan 1976. (28-36)
Singh, Kehar. ‘Understanding the sacrifice of Guru TeghBahadar ji’ Studies in Sikhism and Comparative Religion: Special Issue on Sri Guru Teg Bahadur ji. Vol XLIV, No.2: A Biannual Journal. July-Dec, 2020. (p. 14-18)
Singh, Santokh. Sri Gur Pratab Suraj Granth (Punjabi) Vol 8. Trans Ajit Singh Aulakh. Amritsar: Chatar Singh Jivan Singh, 2006.
Singh, Taran (ed). Guru TeghBahadar: Jiwan, Sandesh Te Shahadit (Punjabi). Patiala: Publication Bureau Punjabi University, 1997.