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A History of the SikhsVolume 1: 1469-1838$

Khushwant Singh

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780195673081

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195673081.001.0001

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(p.289) Appendix 1 Janamsakhis and Other Sources of Information on the Life of Guru Nanak

(p.289) Appendix 1 Janamsakhis and Other Sources of Information on the Life of Guru Nanak

A History of the Sikhs
Oxford University Press

(p.289) Appendix 1

Janamsakhis and Other Sources of Information on the Life of Guru Nanak

The material on which the present-day biographies of Guru Nanak are based is most inadequate from a historian’s point of view. The first attempt to write a biography was made more than fifty years after Nanak’s death and, although many people who had known the Guru personally were alive at the time, little attempt was made to record their impressions. Thereafter many other biographies, or janamsākhīs (literally, birth stories) as they are known, were written. We do not know who wrote the first one, nor on what material it was based. But once one was written, many others followed, taking material from the others and adding or deleting details as it suited the author. The styles of these janamsakhis (with the exception of the biography of Mani Singh) show clearly that they were written by semi-literate scribes for the benefit of a wholly illiterate people. They abound with stories of miracles performed by the Guru; they contradict each other on material points; and some were obviously touched up to advance the claims of one or the other branches of the Guru’s family which had been overlooked in the succession to the guru-ship. Their contents are further vitiated by the Guru’s own compositions in the Adi Granth and by the Vārs of Bhai Gurdas. Nevertheless, the janamsakhis cannot be wholly discarded because they were based on legend and tradition which had grown around the Guru in the years following his demise, and furnish useful material to augment the bare but proven facts of his life. The sources on which the chapter on Guru Nanak in the present work is based are the following:

(p.290) I. Janamsākhīs

There are many janamsakhis (the word will be in roman, without accents, throughout the rest of the appendix) in existence.

  1. 1. JANAMSAKHI BY BHĀĪ BĀLĀ. This work claims to be a contemporary account written by one Bala Sandhu at the instance of the second guru, Angad. According to the author, he was a close companion of Guru Nanak and accompanied him on many of his travels. There are good reasons to doubt this contention:

    1. (a) Guru Angad, who is said to have commissioned the work and was also a close companion of the Guru in his later years, was, according to Bala’s own admission, ignorant of the existence of Bala.

    2. (b) Gurdas, who has listed all Guru Nanak’s prominent disciples whose names were handed down, does not mention the name of Bala Sandhu. (This may be an oversight, for he does not mention Rai Bular either.)

    3. (c) The language used in this janamsakhi was not spoken at the time of Guru Nanak or Guru Angad, but was developed at least a hundred years later.

    4. (d) Some of the hymns ascribed to Nanak are not his but those of the second and fifth gurus.

    5. (e) At several places expressions which gained currency only during the lifetime of the last guru, Gobind Singh (1666–1708), are used, e.g., Vāh Guru jī kī Fateh. Bala’s janamsakhi is certainly not a contemporary account; at best it was written in the early part of the 18th century.

  2. 2. VILĀYAT VĀLĪ JANAMSAKHI. In the year 1883 a copy of a janamsakhi was dispatched by the India Office Library in London for the use of Dr Trumpp and the Sikh scholars assisting him. (It had been given to the Library by an Englishman called Colebrook; it came to be known as the Vilāyat Vālī or the foreign janamsakhi.) This janamsakhi was the basis of the accounts written by Trumpp, Macauliffe, and most Sikh scholars. It is said to have been written in AD 1588 by one Sewa Das.

  3. 3. HĀFIZĀBĀD VĀLĪ JANAMSAKHI. A renowned Sikh scholar, Gurmukh Singh of the Oriental College, Lahore, found another janamsakhi at Hafizabad which was very similar to that found by Mr Colebrook. (p.291) Gurmukh Singh, who was collaborating with Mr Macauliffe in his research on Sikh religion, made it available to the Englishman, who had it published in November 1885. This biography agrees entirely with the India Office janamsakhi.

  4. 4. OTHER JANAMSAKHIS. Many other janamsakhis have since been discovered. They follow the last two mentioned in all material points. The famous historian, Karam Singh, mentions half-a-dozen he came across in his travels.

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that although none of these janamsakhis are contemporary, they are certainly based on some biography which was written earlier but is now untraceable. A historian can neither discard nor accept the janamsakhis in their entirety. Everything they state must be tested against other available material.

II. Ādi Graṅth

Guru Nanak’s compositions in the Adi Granth have a few references to contemporary events, the most important being his presence at Saidpur when it was sacked by Babar in AD 1521. This fact upsets the sequence of events narrated by the janamsakhis. Besides, as stated earlier, the janamsakhis ascribe some hymns to Nanak (e.g., the Prān Sanglī), which Guru Arjun, the compiler of the Adi Granth, did not consider authentic and, despite the trouble he had taken in getting hold of them, did not incorporate in his anthology.

III. Vārs of Bhāī Gurdās

In his thirty-nine Vārs, Bhai Gurdas only briefly mentions some of the events in Guru Nanak’s life: the rest is simply in the nature of an eulogy. These Vārs were composed between fifty to seventy years after the death of Nanak and in the lifetime of many people who knew the Guru, particularly Bhai Buddha, who was personally known to the author. Bhai Gurdas unfortunately did not use the available knowledge to produce a biography; but whatever reference he makes in the Vārs must be considered authentic.

IV. Bhagat Ratnāvalī by Māni Singh

This work was written in the 18th century and is only an exposition of Gurdas’s first canto; it does not pretend to add to the information on (p.292) Guru Nanak. It is significant that in the Bhagat Ratnāvalī, which contains a list of Guru Nanak’s companions and disciples, there is no mention of Bala Sandhu.

V. Mahimā Prakāś by Sarūp Das

(compiled in 1776)

VI. Nānak Prakāś by Santokh Singh

This work was written in AD 1823, is based on the janamsakhi ascribed to Bala Sandhu, and suffers from the same disqualifications.

VII. Dabistān by Muhsin Fānī

The author was a contemporary of the sixth Guru, Hargobind. The work contains very scanty references to Guru Nanak and even these are more in the nature of praise than a narration of facts. It is not known who Muhsin Fani was.

VIII. Relics

From two far separated corners of the earth, tablets have been unearthed which confirm Sikh tradition of Guru Nanak’s travels. In 1915, a Sikh scholar, Gurbaksh Singh, discovered traces of old Sikh temples in Dacca (now capital of Bangladesh) and Chittagong, where tablets mentioned the stay of the first and ninth Gurus. (See Dacca Review, pp. 224–32 of October and November 1915; pp. 316–22 of January 1916, and pp. 375–78 of February and March 1916.) In 1916, Sikh soldiers discovered a tablet in Baghdad commemorating Nanak’s stay in the city. The former conclusively proves Nanak’s stay in the city. The latter goes further and fixes the dates of his western pilgrimage.


It would appear that the gurus succeeding Nanak were more concerned with preserving his hymns and those of their other predecessors than with recording the events of the founder’s life, Bhai Gurdas also did not pay much attention to actual incidents and concerned himself with the exposition of the hymns of his gurus. But soon after the deaths of (p.293) Guru Arjun, Bhai Gurdas, and Bhai Buddha, people less qualified than they, proceeded to write the life of Nanak. They took whatever information was readily available and, for the rest, created situations out of their imagination to give an appropriate setting to some of the hymns of the Guru, which had already been compiled in the Adi Granth (e.g., the acrostic was thus used to create a story that the Guru was sent to school and at the tender age of seven was able to confound his teacher with his learned answers). Nevertheless, when we put together all the material listed above, check one with another, discard the miraculous, delete the accretions of the credulous, we are still left with enough to recreate a life story with a fair degree of authenticity.