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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.299) Appendix 3

(p.299) Appendix 3

Bhai Gurdas

Source:
A History of the Sikhs
Publisher:
Oxford University Press

(p.299) Appendix 3

Bhai Gurdas

Gurdas, the amanuensis who wrote the Adi Granth at the dictation of Guru Arjun, was also the author of 39 vārs (ballads in the heroic metre) in Punjabi and 556 kabits(couplets) in Braj, of which the former are of some historical and theological importance. They are the only really authentic references to the period of the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th gurus by a Sikh. His commentary on Sikh practices are valuable indications of the state of things at the time and are therefore regarded as the ‘key’ to an understanding of the Sikh scriptures.

There is some uncertainty about the year of Gurdas’ birth. Most historians have placed it in the time of the second guru, Angad. Others believe that he was born after Amar Das’ succession as the third guru. They contend that the name Gurdas was given by the third guru and, since the naming ceremony is performed soon after birth, the event could not have taken place very much earlier. He was therefore born sometime between 1540 and 1560.

Gurdas was the son of Datar Chand, the younger brother of the third guru, who took the child’s education into his own hands. He was quick to learn and soon became one of the chief exponents of the teachings of the gurus. On the death of Amar Das, the fourth guru, Ram Das, formally initiated Gurdas into the faith and sent him to Agra as a missionary. On the death of Ram Das, Gurdas returned to Amritsar and presented himself before Ram Das’ successor, Guru Arjun. He was first engaged in trying to appease Prithi Chand, the Guru’s elder brother, who had set himself up as a rival guru and had launched a campaign of vilification against Arjun. Gurdas failed in his mission. His vār (36) on Prithi Chand’s attitude is full of vituperation. He came back (p.300) to his master and turned his attention to purely academic pursuits. In 1603, when the Guru started the great task of compiling the Adi Granth, he chose Gurdas as the scribe. The volume was completed in the summer of 1604 and installed in the Harimandir.

Emperor Akbar, while passing through the Punjab, desired to scrutinize the sacred volume and see for himself whether there was any truth in the allegation that it contained references derogatory to Islam and the Prophet. Gurdas was entrusted with the mission of taking the Granth to the Emperor. The volume was opened at random three times, but none of the passages had anything offensive to Muslim susceptibilities; on the contrary, at least two echoed sentiments complimentary to the Islamic faith. Akbar made an offering of 51 gold mohurs to the holy book and presented a pair of expensive Kashmere shawls to Gurdas.

After the execution of the fifth guru and during the years when Guru Hargobind was in prison in Gwalior, the affairs of the Sikh community were left in the hands of trusted followers, among whom were Bhai Buddha and Bhai Gurdas.

On the Guru’s release, Gurdas was sent on a mission to purchase horses from Kabul (the Guru having decided to arm his followers and train them as soldiers). Before he could complete the deal, the money was stolen from him and the crestfallen Gurdas, being unable to face his master, fled to Benares. He was apprehended and brought to Amritsar. The Guru forgave him, and he again resumed his duties as the chief organizer of the scattered community. At this time, the Guru’s militant ways and his close association with Muslims who had tormented his father caused a certain amount of unrest in the Sikh community. Gurdas rose to his master’s defence. To him the Guru was ‘the destroyer of enemy hordes, the hero of battles, the great Warrior’ as well as the ‘great benefactor’.

Gurdas remained celibate and died at Goindwal in 1629. His funeral rites were performed by Guru Hargobind himself.

Historical Importance of Gurdas’ Work

Bhai Gurdas did not set out to write a work of history, but there are several references (mostly in vār 11) to persons and events which are of some importance to the historian of today. There are 85 passages scattered in the 39 vārs which deserve attention, viz. vār 1 pauṛī 17–48, vār 11, vār 21 pauṛī 13–31, vār 24 pauṛī 1–25, vār 26 pauṛī 31 and 34, vār 39 pauṛī 2 and 3, vār 3 pauṛī 12, vār 20 pauṛī 1 and vār 38 pauṛī 20.

(p.301) There are several very notable and inexplicable omissions in Gurdas’ writings. He has, for instance, produced a list of the important disciples of the earlier gurus. In the list of adherents of Guru Nanak the name of Rai Bular, the landlord of Talwandi, who was among Guru Nanak’s earliest and most important disciples, is missing. (And for a better reason, that of Bala Sandhu.) Gurdas has also nothing to say about the compilation of the Adi Granth and its scrutiny by Emperor Akbar. The reference to the execution of the fifth guru is in the vaguest terms:

  • The Guru hath taken his abode in the river
  • among the fish,
  • As moths that see the flame fall upon it and
  • merge their light with His light,
  • As deer hear the sound of a distant drum and
  • run to it without a care of doom,
  • As butterflies settle on the lotus and die
  • on it during the night.
  • The Guru’s teachings we forget not,
  • and like the monsoon birds are ever calling.
  • The good have peace, the nectar of love,
  • and the company of the gentle.
  • Thus is my life a sacrifice to Guru Arjun.

The only possible explanation of these oversights is that Gurdas’ primary object was to expound certain points from the scriptures and to propagate the ideals of the Sikh way of life, not to write a book of history.

Gurdas’ Compositions

Gurdas’ vārs are of a very uneven quality and have a baffling variety of diction. Some run very smoothly and are well ordered; the vocabulary of others is both antiquated and not infrequently violates elementary rules of grammar.

In the copies of Gurdas’ vārs which are current today, there is a 40th vār written by a Sindhi poet of Shikarpur of the same name. The Sindhi Gurdas lived in the time of Banda (1670–1716). His composition, though in the same metre as that used by the elder Gurdas, is of higher poetic quality and is frequently quoted in describing the mission of Guru Gobind Singh.